GOLDEN GATE PARK SWEEP – CAN CITY MAKE IT STICK? / HOMELESS ROUSTED: 4:30 a.m. wakeup for the park campers

Heather Knight
SF Chronicle, August 2, 2007

For 19-year-old Brandon Krigbaum, who goes by the name Repo Violence, the wake-up call came at 4:30 a.m.

Police officers and homeless outreach workers rousted him and his friends from their sleeping bags Wednesday morning in an encampment on Chicken Hill, near Golden Gate Park’s popular tennis courts.

Similar awakenings happened throughout the park, as well as Buena Vista Park, Corona Heights and other outdoor expanses as Mayor Gavin Newsom‘s pledge to clear the city’s parks of homeless encampments once and for all continued to take shape.

Teams of police officers and city outreach workers took Krigbaum and 58 other bleary-eyed homeless people in vans to a huge, off-white canvas tent set up for one morning in Sharon Meadows. An additional 25 homeless people came to the tent on their own – perhaps drawn by the coffee, bagels, orange wedges and blueberries provided by the city.

The tent was erected eight days after The Chronicle reported that the park was riddled with homeless encampments and hypodermic needles – despite Newsom’s well-publicized efforts to clear the parks of encampments last fall.

Inside the tent, workers sat at rows of desks with signs reading “Housing Information,” “Shelter Reservations” and “County Benefits” and met one-on-one with homeless people. After eight hours’ work, 44 people accepted the offer of a roof over their heads, and 40 turned it down.

“That’s actually very good on the first swing,” said Dr. Rajesh Parekh, who runs the city’s Homeless Outreach Team.

But the question on the minds of families who use the park and the homeless people themselves was whether the outreach efforts would be permanent or whether, as in past efforts, city officials would eventually move on to something else.

“The mayor, because it’s an election year, they’re calling him out on his claim of fixing Golden Gate Park,” said Krigbaum, one of those who rejected the offer of a shelter bed. “They think they’re moving everybody out of the park, but they’re just moving them downtown for a while, and then they’ll be back.”

Parents of children playing at the newly redesigned playground just yards away also were doubtful the park would ever be cleared of homeless encampments. Over the sounds of organ music coming from the carousel, Chris Pratt, a 33-year-old father of two daughters, said he was skeptical Newsom would make a permanent change.

“I know he’s tried before, but I think it’s a long battle,” said the Sunset District resident. He added that the one-day tent probably wouldn’t do much. “To me, this is just a Band-Aid. They’re just looking for some good press.”

Ruth Ekhaus, a mother from the Outer Sunset, said it’s still worth trying again.

“It’s San Francisco – people have been talking about this for so many years,” she said. “These people need services, and they shouldn’t be living in the park – for their own safety and health and for the safety and health of people who live near the park and use it.”

Trent Rhorer, director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency, said that unlike last fall’s 90-day push, the new effort will last for at least the duration of the fiscal budget.

The new budget contains $2.8 million for the park, including seven outreach workers, who will work full-time trying to get homeless people living in the park and surrounding neighborhoods into housing. The Department of Recreation and Parks also has more gardeners and custodians, many of whom will concentrate on the park.

“I don’t know that there’s every going to be a time when we say, ‘We’re done with our work,’ ” Rhorer said. “The park has long been a destination for homeless individuals, as has the Haight, so it requires an ongoing presence in perpetuity.”

Rhorer said the city – which schedules Project Homeless Connect in the Civic Center every other month – might start bringing the tent and its services to the park on a quarterly basis.

There’s a rule on the books that nobody but joggers and drivers can use Golden Gate Park between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but it hasn’t been enforced. Newsom is considering closing all city parks from midnight to 6 a.m.

“A mother told me that nothing good ever happens after midnight, and I think she was on to something. And it’s suggestive. Why do you keep the park open after midnight?” Newsom said Wednesday.

Newsom said he has turned to staffers for feedback on the issue of closing the park but has not yet made up his mind on whether he wants to go through with it.

“We’re going to do it the right way,” he said. “I’m not going to go in with a bulldozer. I’m not going to go in and knock people out.”

Newsom also is considering raising all park violations to misdemeanors; now, some of them are infractions and are usually thrown out in traffic court. On Wednesday, some homeless people were issued citations for camping before being taken to the tent.

Twenty-three people were placed in shelters Wednesday, and 17 were placed in transitional housing, which is rent-free and is intended to last for a few months until permanent housing can be arranged.

Four people were driven to the Transbay Terminal and given free bus tickets home through the city’s Homeward Bound program – to mothers in San Luis Obispo and Athens, Ga., a daughter in Santa Fe and an uncle in Phoenix.

Brian Austin, 29, said he’d been living in the park for 11 years and was finally ready to move on.

“I’m just physically drained – it’s time to get my life back together,” he said.

Malcom Pearman, a 55-year-old military veteran with a yellow jacket reading “Honk to Stop the War,” also got a spot at a shelter.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the effort to clear the park. “It’s the best thing I’ve heard yet.”

A 25-year-old named Josh, who wouldn’t disclose his last name, also found success at the tent. He and his dog, Rosco, were moved into transitional housing. The Homeless Outreach Team last year started working with building managers to get dogs accepted into some SRO hotels.

Krigbaum sat for hours outside the tent, chatting with friends and eating breakfast. The Sacramento native has been camping on the park off and on since first arriving in the city a year ago.

“I really enjoy myself – hanging out, being free, saying in the morning, ‘I can do whatever I want,’ ” he said.

He panhandles in the Haight and plays the guitar and harmonica at Pier 39. His dyed orange mohawk and multiple piercings make him a popular photograph subject for tourists, who often give him a few dollars in return.

He refused to stay in a shelter because he thinks they’re too dangerous. He said he’d consider moving into transitional housing at some point. But as for his accommodations in the short term?

“I’ll probably sleep in the park,” he said.

GOLDEN GATE PARK SWEEP – CAN CITY MAKE IT STICK? / ‘MARCH OF JUNKIES’: Haight’s residents fume over needles

C.W. Nevius
SF Chronicle, August 2, 2007

Finding the needle exchange in the Haight isn’t easy. Walk west on Haight Street, take a right at Cole, and turn in the first doorway. There’s no identification, just a blue sign that says, “entrance.”

Walk up the hall, which smells of urine, and then knock on the scratched and battered wooden door. After two or three tries, someone might open the door a crack to see what you want.

Welcome to a city drug needle exchange and HIV prevention facility.

When then-Mayor Frank Jordan signed legislation endorsing needle exchanges in 1992, it was a high-minded, civically progressive program to slow the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Drug users would get a needle, use it, then return it for a clean one. That’s still the idea – and it is a good one – but somewhere along the line the concept went low-rent.

Today the Haight facility looks more like a hole in the wall. The neighbors, many of whom say they have never been told what’s going on up the street, find syringes in their gardens. And the original idea – a one-for-one exchange – is largely ignored.

The exchange is run by the Homeless Youth Alliance, which gets a yearly budget of $275,000 from the city Department of Public Health. As the alliance’s program director, Mary Howe, admits, they make no more than a rough count of the incoming needles. If someone says he returned 40, they hand over 40 new ones. And, if he doesn’t have any, they give him 20 as a startup stash.

“The point for a needle exchange is not to get every needle back,” says Howe. “The majority of users dispose of needles in a respectful manner.”

And those who don’t?

“That’s not my responsibility,” Howe said. “I can’t hold everyone’s hand and make everyone put them in a bio bucket. If someone has a liquor store, and they sell liquor to someone who gets into an accident, is it the store’s fault?”

But this is a little different. Even Tracey Packer, interim director of the Health Department‘s HIV Prevention Program, thinks that’s too strong.

“It is our responsibility,” she says. “We all have to participate to make sure everyone is safe.”

The public health danger posed by used syringes got my attention during a visit to nearby Golden Gate Park last month to check out homeless campsites. I found so many discarded and new needles it raised the question of where they all came from. To the neighbors on Cole, it is obvious – they are being given out by the double-handful at the needle exchange.

Howe, a true believer who is a recovering addict herself, feels the debris is an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary initiative. To her, the single, most-important issue is stopping the spread of infectious disease. If that means giving out a double-handful of needles to someone who might leave them scattered in Golden Gate Park, so be it.

But Les Silverman, who has lived on Cole Street since 1973, feels the fact that there are plenty of needles available increases his chances of finding used needles in his garden. He doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.

“Why, especially, would our block have needles in our gardens?” he says. “Like my neighbors, we believe in the concept of needle exchange. What we take issue with is location, transparency and oversight.”

Silverman and other Cole Street residents have become familiar with “The March of the Junkies.” In the early afternoon they trudge up the street to the corner, then turn and hike back down to the Panhandle portion of Golden Gate Park. Somewhere along the line, needles and condoms can be tossed in the bushes, and the homeless people turn their gardens into rest rooms.

“To me,” says Grace Hersh, who lives across the street from Silverman, “it is just this stream of (a) dreadful element. It’s disturbing.”

Howe admits that there hasn’t been much outreach to the neighbors. Newcomers like Jeff Goldsmith, who has two children – Ariane, 6, and Simon, 9 – says he just recently learned about the needle exchange up the street. He’s found only a few needles in the last few months, and when your kids are involved, that’s too many.

“I’m actually in favor of needle exchange,” he says. “But if you are finding needles, they are not being exchanged.”

Packer, at the city Health Department, strongly disagrees that the availability of needles is what is contributing to dirty discards in nearby Golden Gate Park. But doesn’t that seem logical? If needles can be acquired by the handful, why bother to keep track of the one you just used?

A lot of people say this is a homelessness problem or an addiction problem. But for those who are trying to make a life for their families in San Francisco homes, it is simpler than that.

Consider the case of Ken Stevens, a lifelong resident of the city. Three years ago he took his 5-year-old son, Michael, to the playground at Corona Heights – a park we visited earlier this week.

Michael climbed up on the play structure, then turned to his dad and said, “Ouch.” He’d been poked by a needle left on the slide.

“You talk about a parent’s worst nightmare,” Stevens says today. “I think I went out of my mind for a couple of hours.”

Michael turned out to be fine, but it took three months of blood panels to establish that. By then, Stevens had reached a decision.

“As soon as that happened, it was pretty much an instant disconnect,” he says.

In a matter of months, Stevens had moved his family to Los Altos.