Action Plan for Removing San Francisco’s Tents

by on September 11, 2023

Photo shows Tents on Mason across from IKEA
Tents on Mason across from IKEA

90% of Campers Refuse Shelter

San Francisco is now free to remove campers who refuse shelter or housing. Can the city get it done?

It better. The injunction creating a right to camp damaged the entire San Francisco economy. Drug tourists hurt the city’s image across the globe.

Ending sidewalk camping sends a national message that San Francisco no longer offers a welcome mat for drug tourists.

So how should the city proceed?

How Tents Get Removed

Removing tents from sidewalks is a very structured process. Sam Dodge, the Director of San Francisco’s Healthy Streets Operation Center (“HSOC”), laid out this process in a very detailed Declaration submitted to the court last December. Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) also reach out to campers but HSOC is the most successful city outreach operation for getting shelter for the unhoused.

The December injunction allowing camping caused the percentage of those refusing shelter to jump. City outreach workers originally estimated 60% were refuseniks. The current number is likely at least 90%.

Tom Wolf is a former drug addict who is now Director of West Coast Initiatives for the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions. Wolf regularly talks to campers in the Tenderloin and elsewhere. He told me last week that he estimates 90% of campers refuse shelter.

JJ Smith, who regularly tries to convince campers to get treatment and shelter, agrees with Wolf.  Smith sees very few tent dwellers interested in obtaining shelter.

The growing percentage of refuseniks makes sense. Dodge’s team and other city outreach workers continually offer campers shelter or housing.  Those remaining in tents are overwhelmingly refuseniks. The December 2022 injunction made San Francisco the nation’s only city giving people an absolute right to camp; it’s no wonder that this  attracted people desiring to live in tents rather than shelters (a key factor is the latter ban drug use).

The Police and DPW

City data found 609 tents used by the unhoused in July 2023. This means there are over 500 structures whose occupants refuse shelter and can now be moved.

Removing campers against their will requires a police presence. That’s why plaintiffs’ in the federal lawsuit accuse San Francisco of “criminalizing” homelessness. Or of waging police “sweeps.”

But if people are illegally pitching a tent on a sidewalk and refuse requests to leave, what option does San Francisco have except using police? Is the city supposed to let lawbreakers continue hurting residents and businesses until they agree to stop breaking the law?

The police play an essential role in tent removal. But does the understaffed SFPD have enough officers  to promptly remove 500 tents?

Chief Scott better figure out how to do this. Public expectations for tent removal are high. Tents provide a customer base for the drug cartel.  They drive many of the negative images of San Francisco. The SFPD is already combating open air drug markets, car break ins and retail thefts. But the Chief needs to coordinate with the Sheriff and other law enforcement in prioritizing tent removal.

Many officers don’t like confronting campers. They feel that they risk getting sued in small claims court for allegedly wrongfully using “force” against the unhoused. Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit who promote the small claims strategy offer no viable plan for clearing sidewalks from refuseniks who won’t voluntarily leave. Despite agreeing to modify the injunction, plaintiffs still believe in the right to camp.

Clearing tents also requires DPW to dispose of whatever the camper leaves on the sidewalk. Does DPW have the capacity?

DPW’s failure to clear trash filled neighborhood sidewalks raises doubts. DPW has over 100 vacant positions. The city might consider issuing emergency contracts for removing encampments to Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) who are already removing trash from neighborhoods

Mayor Breed and the Board should tell SFPD and DPW to prioritize tent removals. Groups  pushing to close open air drug markets need to mobilize their members on this.

Timing and Location

The city could remove the vast majority of tents by year’s end. The Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco is in mid-November so there may be pressure for even quicker results.

In deciding where to start the city should prioritize protecting active businesses and residences. This means clearing tents on Mason across from IKEA while putting those in front of vacant buildings, parking lots and closed off future development sites at the back of the line.

Top priority should also be for tents blocking disability access. This should have consistently occurred under the original injunction but got caught up in the sweeping nature of the magistrate’s order.

The other essential priority is closing encampments that have caused fires. Encampments that have started fires should be closed first.

San Francisco is eager to make a big move toward economic recovery.  Clearing sidewalks of tents used by refuseniks sends a strong message that the city has turned a corner and has a bright future.

Let’s get it done!

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

More Posts

Filed under: San Francisco News