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Hey Area: Where did San Francisco's tent camps come from?

Photo cropped and resized with permission from Dan Brekke
Division Street homeless encampment.


On Thursday April 7th, 2016, San Francisco police shot and killed Luis Gongora, a 45-year-old man living in a homeless encampment of tents on Shotwell Street in the Mission District.

Contradictory witness accounts make the details hard to pin down, but it’s known that the shooting happened within 30 seconds of the police arriving.

Amidst the confusion, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has declared all of the city’s tent encampments a safety hazard. He’s ordered his department heads to create a plan for disbanding every one. The prominence of tents around the city caught the attention of San Francisco resident Elizabeth Marlow.

“We spout how liberal and open minded we are and yet we have this horrific tent city just in our midst,” says Marlow. “We don't seem to be practicing our values as San Franciscans.”

Marlow reached us through our Hey Area project, which asks what you want to know about the Bay Area. Marlow asked:

“My question is where are all the homeless folks coming from in San Francisco and who gave them the tents?”

Where did all the tents come from?


I start trying to figure out where the tents are coming from by asking around on the street. There’s a cluster of tents on Harrison Street, south of Market. I walk up to one and a man named J.J. Rogers invites me in.

Rogers has a yellow four-person tent. Inside, there are foam sleeping pads. He has a little platform with a gas burner. Everything is lined up neat. You can hear traffic and people right outside.

“But, it’s something to have your own special space and just block the world off,” says Rogers. “It’s a sense of security and normalcy almost.”

Rogers is 30. He’s been on his own since he was 18. He says he left home because his family didn’t accept that he is queer. He lived and worked for several years in the city.

But, he says he lost his job during the recession. He couch-surfed for a long time and gradually became homeless. Having a tent to come home to makes living on the streets bearable for him. He’s cycled through several tents over the years and says most of them came from friends.

As for where other people get them, Rogers tells me some guys at the SOMA StrEat Food food truck court handed some out. Other people on the street bought their tents – they’re only $30 at Target. Another homeless woman, Vanessa Wagner, tells me a lot of people steal them from Goodwill, and from each other.

The Salvation Army and the city’s homeless services both hadn’t heard of any coordinated efforts — except for one rumor about a vigilante team of San Franciscans handing out tents by the hundreds.

The tent mafia

Shaun Osburn is a designer, a native to the Bay Area, and the founder of what he jokingly calls the Tent Mafia. One day back in January, his friend Tara Spalty posted a video on Facebook showing a Public Works employee throwing tents from a homeless encampment into a garbage truck. Osburn saw the video and commented on the post.

He said, “I want to replace all these tents.”

He got the idea to set up a fundraising campaign to buy tents and deliver them around the city to people who lost theirs. He wrote another comment:

“If I set up a GoFundMe page, do you think people would donate?”

Spalty said yes. So he did.

“Within the first few hours we managed raise over $4,000,” says Osburn.

So far, they’ve turned that into about 350 tents, with a lot more money to spend. They even developed a whole sting operation for how to hand them out.

They recruited volunteer cab drivers who keep their trunks stocked with tents. At first, the drivers only handed out tents after big sweeps. Now, the drivers are giving them out more freely to people who need them — the campaign eventually raised $18,000. That’s a lot of tents.    

City says tents are a bad option


“I understand why people want to give [tents] out, [and] I understand why people stay in them,” says Emily Cohen, Deputy Director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnership and Engagement.

But, when people choose tents over shelters, her job gets harder.

“We want people to be safe and have access to showers and have a door that locks and have access to services,” she says. “That’s really the goal.”

Cohen’s office works with San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team, a group that goes out at night to invite people on the street to come to shelters. But, a lot of them decline.  

Cohen says these are mostly people who have significant numbers of possessions (the shelter doesn’t offer storage), or people who have pets, or want to sleep near a partner, or don’t want a curfew.

The city has opened a shelter called the Navigation Center which accommodates all these needs, while helping people find permanent housing elsewhere. So far, the center has housed about 400 people. This new approach has been working, so the city is opening another one within two months.

Where are all the people in the tents coming from?

Cohen says they’re getting better at creating exits out of homelessness. As for how they get there in the first place, she says, “We are looking at a local problem. I think that there's a stereotype that people flock to San Francisco when they experience homelessness.”

But, the stereotype is inaccurate. When they last counted, 71% of people on the street were living in the city before they found themselves on the street.

“I think people don't want to imagine that their neighbor could be somebody who becomes homeless, that it must be an other. It’s another way to other the homeless,” says Cohen. “But, really, these are our neighbors.”

This story is a part of Hey Area, KALW's collaborative reporting project. Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.


Liza got her start in radio with KALW's Audio Academy. Now, she is KALW's econmy reporter and a mentor for in the KALW Audio Academy.