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The Tent City the Super Bowl Created 

Tuesday, Feb 2 2016
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Imagine you're having a party. Your friends are there, and your co-workers, and your boss. You're all chummy, but there's tension in the air — you're eager to impress, after all. When the doorbell rings, you realize you've left out your dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. You fling it under the couch, but when you open the door, your dog retrieves the flung projectile and drops the softcore smut at your guests' feet.

This is what happens when you scurry to hide your worst faults: You end up magnifying them.

San Francisco's most constant embarrassment, it seems, is its homeless: the 2,100 children in public schools, some of the 6,600-plus wandering the city (those are who meet the federal definition of homeless; there are thousands uncounted crashing on couches or other temporary digs).

This population has mostly stayed level since 2005; the lack of progress despite heavy spending means the homeless in Mayor Ed Lee's capital city of innovation are living symbols of failed policy.

And the guests are coming: a million-plus tourists, a few dozen more billionaires, and international media all converging for the Super Bowl, the biggest event in sports and television. Lee caught hell this summer for saying the homeless would have to "leave" during the festivities. They didn't, and now they're in the spotlight instead.

Or maybe they did leave. Look closely and you'll notice a dearth of tents in the "touristy" areas. Fisherman's Wharf is clear, as is Union Square, where the NFL will set up temporary headquarters at the "Super Bowl 50" banner-draped Hilton. The Super Bowl City near the Ferry Building is free of the metallic rattle of overburdened shopping carts. This isn't evidence of a timely expansion of shelter space, or a coincidental migratory pattern, but it does suggest a funneling of the homeless into certain "approved" areas of the city.

This has never been stated city policy. The official stance from Sam Dodge, the mayor's homeless czar, is "there's not a concerted effort by the city" to herd people out of the tourist zones, and that he's only heard such charges from "reporters and activists."

"Our staff has not been given instructions," says Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works. "When it's rainy weather, people go under the freeway because it's a little bit of shelter."

But the word on the streets is that under Lee, the city has been blitzing its street people.

"Four months ago, there was rumor they were going to start cracking down because of the Super Bowl, and they started," said Cheryl, two weeks shy of her 50th birthday, who's lived in tents for the past six months. When I met her, Cheryl's tent was a block from the US-101 overpass on 13th Street. "I had a tent down [at Embarcadero] and they made me move three times in one night. In the rain."

The funneling-through-bullying works like so, according to those who've experienced it: At 3:30, maybe 4 a.m., trucks from Public Works pull up, with an SFPD escort. They wake up anyone who's pitched a tent, give them a few minutes — the time allotment decreases as kickoff nears — and when time's up, snatch their belongings and drive off.

"It's been going on forever," said "Tiny" Gray-Garcia, co-editor of Poor magazine, which tracks S.F.'s "sweeps" of homeless encampments. She estimates Public Works/SFPD seized $109,000 worth of homeless people's property in 2015, with only 6 percent of people retrieving their belongings. "But in the last week, it's gotten intense."

"Whatever you can't pack, you lose," said Shaun, a Hispanic man in his late 20s. "I've lost everything twice in the past two weeks, so I'm starting over from scratch." But the stick of seizures comes with a carrot. "They said move to Folsom, and after the Super Bowl, we can move back," he said. Which is how the city has ended up with encampments bursting at the seams.

The largest — San Francisco's Tent City, U.S.A. — is a four-block stretch on 13th and Division streets between Folsom and Bryant, where at least 150 tents are pitched.

"Normally, it's three or four per block," said Shannon, a 38-year-old transient trying to find a spot with three dogs in tow. "Now, you can barely go three feet and there's another tent."

And when this many are packed this tightly, tensions flare.

The constant hum of traffic gives the underpass less the calming force of an ocean swell and more the slap-in-the-face feel of a wind tunnel.

One woman said she was recently sexually assaulted by someone new to the area. Another couple wondered how to remain sober with the sudden influx of drug users.

Most troubling, a Tent City citizen turned up dead in December. Allison Sparrow, a 33-year-old artist, was murdered in her tent on 16th and Harrison Streets. Friends and family say it may have been a drive-by shooting; the case remains unsolved.

"She was very soft spoken, didn't bother nobody," said Hoyt Walker, an old street pro who uploads first-person videos of the Tent City onto his YouTube channel, TheHoytShow. "She did what she did, kept it to herself, but she's dead for no reason."

Besides homeless in-fighting, there's also a rising animosity between workaday citizens and tenters. While there, I witnessed a lengthy dispute between a tenter named Uncle Pete and a property manager whose driveway was blocked by tents. The manager asked for tents to be set up past a certain pillar, the "deal" that's worked in the past. Now, there's no room past the pillar. "I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place," Uncle Pete told me. "He is, too."

The manager, who didn't provide his name, is at wit's end (and allegedly threw tents into traffic the day before). "They throw needles and trash into our yard," the manager told me. "They take shits on the sidewalk." He proposed that tenters "enter the system," before name-checking Supervisor "Scott Wiener's plan" as a solution.

Let's look at that plan.

In a Jan. 19 letter to six city agencies, Wiener urged the city to figure out how to transition homeless into shelters — but he also asked the police to start "enforcing" the city's ban on tents.

The letter concluded with questions about how many tents should be allowed, who's in them, what's the plan, etc. A day later, Wiener introduced a ballot measure to simplify the construction of affordable housing, mirroring an ordinance stuck in limbo. (Wiener's goal with the repetition is a "backstop" if the board fails to pass the current one.)

Neither Wiener nor his office responded to requests for comment from SF Weekly. You can admire the grandstanding, but a plan it is not.

"He has not offered a viable solution," said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "Not, 'We have this site identified.' Not, 'Let's make an emergency supplemental to fund this.' It's his Donald Trump moment to get his name in the media."

There's also a misconception that there are shelter beds available, which bolsters the argument that tent-dwellers choose to live on the street. City officials claim between 30 and 90 vacant beds each night, but this contradicts the 895 names on the online Shelter Reservation Waitlist.

"They hold vacancies to make sure people suffering from abuse get access, or for people that need them because [they're in town] for one night," Friedenbach said. "This counts as vacant even though you cannot have another person sleep there. The reality is, they're turning away people on a daily basis."

As kickoff nears, the city has two options: It can hold its breath and hope. Or — if other rumors among the tenters come true — the city can forcibly sweep up the homeless and bus them to a massive shelter at Pier 80, set up for El Niño storm relief, but a handy way to get them out of the national spotlight. Like most acts of desperation, this move may have the opposite effect. "Now, we're going to make ourselves seen," Walker says. "There are people that want to go to Santa Clara and set up tents. To let people know there are homeless."

Dodge says Pier 80 isn't open yet, although that could change by week's end. As if to assuage anger over forced relocation, he notes that the NFL is looking to San Francisco as a model for hosting Super Bowls elsewhere.

"We didn't give citations to any homeless, or seize belongings, or do forceful removals," he says. "It's just an expression of our interest in trying to make sure we're taking care of people. And having a party."


About The Author

Rick Paulas


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