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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Finding alternatives for homeless encampments

Mary Rees

As California sloshes through its rainy season, homeless people around the Bay Area are looking for places to stay dry. In San Francisco, the spaces under freeways are popular, and groups of homeless people sometimes band together for their mutual protection. Still, as you might expect, living on the streets isn’t safe or easy.

“For people who are living outdoors, their life expectancy actually drops by a couple of decades,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the city’s Coalition on Homelessness. “It’s really dangerous, and in these situations where you have an encampment where people can create community, create shelter and look after each other, it is a much better situation than, for example, running from doorway to doorway to try to find a safe place to sleep.”

Down the road from AT&T Stadium, squeezed between the Caltrain and the Muni tracks, a small group of people make their home beneath an I-280 on-ramp.

They pick up trash and sweep out their living spaces. They are a community. They are also trespassing on state-owned land. Caltrans has sent in law enforcement to clear people out more than once this year. Still the residents return.

An apartment complex of tents

As the San Francisco Giants were winding down regular season play in their home stadium, the California Highway Patrol and city police were ramping up efforts to remove another group of San Franciscans who call King Street “home.”

People have been sheltering under the I-280 on-ramp at 5th Street and King for about ten years. That is, until the authorities arrived in late August.

“I was over painting my ex’s R.V., and one of the residents came over and told me, ‘Hey, they’re taking your stuff!’” says Anthony Ford, who had been living under the ramp for about thirteen months. He recounts what happened to him the day of the raid: “I got on my bike; I stopped what I was doing and I came all the way back over here, and all my stuff was gone. Period. Me and two other people, they just took all of our stuff and they just went and threw it right in the truck.”

For freelance writer Ian Smith, who’d been living in the encampment since February, it felt like a home invasion.

“Sandra and Tomas, the couple over there, sat there and basically made a home; you know, there was flowers and a rock garden,” Smith says. “Well, they came through, I guess, storm-troopered ‘em, you know, like ripped them up and, you know, leveled out the ground. I guess, you know, no reason for beauty there, underneath a bridge. So they tore it up.”

The encampment was like an apartment complex built of tents, with neighbors watching out for neighbors.

“We’ve actually had people down here who have jobs, like, full-time, 9-to-5s,” says Jessica Prater, who lived here almost two years by the time of the raid.  She collects recycling and does odd jobs to scrape together enough change for food. She’s planning to return to school to study Animal Science.

Since the August raid, she, Smith, Ford, and several others have moved back under the freeway.

“I can trust pretty much everyone down here,” Prater says. “If for some reason something does come up missing, somebody has my back. I was a single female out here at one point you know, and I never had worries. I never carried a knife; I never carried pepper spray or any personal weapon.”

Still, it’s not ideal. There’s constant train and traffic noise. While it’s sheltered, it’s still exposed. And, of course, living there is illegal.
On August 28th, when the C.H.P. removed the camp, staff from the Mayor’s Homeless Outreach Team, or “HOT Team,” were on hand to offer services. However, the head of that team, Bevan Dufty, was out of town studying innovative solutions for chronic drinkers.

“Ironically, on the day that CalTrans went out there, I was in Seattle,” says Dufty, “and I was there with a, hmm, eclectic group that included Jennifer Friedenbach, the Executive Director of Coalition on Homeless [sic].”

Dufty has been on the job less than a year, and he says he relies heavily on the experience of Friedenbach, who’s worked at the Coalition on Homelessness for seventeen years. She lets him know what homeless clients and their advocates want. They work together, but they don’t always see eye-to-eye.

“From our perspective, if things are going safe, if things are kept clean, if there’s some work done within an encampment, work with the city to try to make sure that everyone has housing, and until that time, allow people to stay in the space that they’re at,” Friedenbach says.

Dufty takes a different view.

“I am less believing that this was a healthy community and a good place for people to live, but, I didn’t stand there and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got existing services that are going to meet the needs of these individuals,’” says Dufty. “I went and said to the mayor and to the director of Public Health, ‘We’ve got to step it up, and we’ve got to provide a tool that’s effective.’”

During one visit from the HOT Team, camp resident Jessica Prater found out that she qualifies for some work programs and help from Child Protective Services (C.P.S.).

“I was pregnant out here, so I gave my child up to C.P.S.,” says Prater. “I guess they have resources that would help me get my parental rights back, and they would help me get off the streets, like, in order to do that.”

She has also made use of the city’s Project Homeless Connect, which recently expanded to daily operations near City Hall. The program matches up homeless clients with volunteers who can provide services like free haircuts or dental exams.

“They’re definitely a good, like, one-stop shop – it’s something that we can manage,” says Prater. “I can’t manage – I can’t do appointments every day, and if I’m going to this building and this building, I can’t even keep track of the times.”

Nor can she find stable shelter, aside from what she’s found at the underpass at 5th and King streets. The day of the August raid, the HOT Team managed to place nine of the 30 or so people it evicted from the encampment in temporary rooms.  

Bevan Dufty says every one of the campers was offered a bed somewhere, but at the same time, the city’s shelters are practically full every day.

There are simply not enough low-cost housing options in the city. That’s how 40,000 households wound up on the waiting list for affordable housing in San Francisco.

“What the city often has to offer is temporary housing that is already housing that other people are in line for, and so really what we need to do is expand our stock,” says Friedenbach. “It has to be affordable and safe and permanent.”

Last month San Francisco voters approved the Housing Trust Fund measure, which uses general fund money to create new, and rehabilitate old, affordable housing. Advocates are hopeful that living in San Francisco will become more realistic for lower-income households. It’s going to take time. Meanwhile, homeless people find shelter where they can, including the underpass at 5th and King.

We contacted Caltrans for a comment about the encampment on their property at 5th and King. In an email a public information officer said they have to defend state property and public safety on their land. The agency is currently receiving bids for construction of a tall fence to keep people out from under the freeway, and it plans to "install the fencing by the beginning of next year."

Crosscurrents homelessnesBevan Dufty