Big SoMa homeless camp cleaned out

Kevin Fagan
SF Chronicle – Tuesday, August 28, 2012

To most people, the giant homeless encampment at Fifth and King streets was invisible. At most, some could catch a glimpse of tents from the Interstate 280 on-ramp, or from a railcar pulling into the nearby Caltrain station.

But nearby residents and shopkeepers knew exactly what was under that I-280 on-ramp – a sprawling mini-city of tents, suitcases and makeshift Conestoga wagon-style trailers, and a 50-strong homeless population that had been there for years. It was the biggest street camp in San Francisco.

Until Tuesday, that is.

At 8 a.m., an army of police officers, city cleaning crews and street counselors descended on the block-long settlement, and by noon tons of clothing, tents, boxes and trash had been cleared out, either to city storage lockers or disposal bins. City workers said that by Wednesday evening they hope to have it cleared down to bare dirt for the first time in at least three years.

The cleanup was a dirty, complex job. Several campers were methamphetamine addicts, forcing crews to use grabbing tools to pick up used needles before it was safe to clear smaller garbage.

“This camp has always been a real mess,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Sarah Wrathall, watching workers with breathing masks sort debris. “There’s a lot of rats, a lot of excrement, a lot of waste.”

City homeless outreach counselors, meanwhile, waded into the crowd. By the end of the day, they had gotten 10 people into temporary housing and on track for permanent supportive residences.

“I can’t believe I get to live inside again,” said Brenda Clark, 48, sitting by her chest-high mound of belongings and waiting for a van to take her to a city-funded residential hotel room. “I got evicted from my last hotel in April, and I didn’t know where to go, so I wound up here.

“I can’t wait to have a real shower,” she said with a toothless smile.

Bevan Dufty, point person on homelessness for Mayor Ed Lee, said the ultimate goal of the joint effort by the various agencies that carried out Tuesday’s clearance was not just to bounce street people down the block to make the area prettier.

“Our objective is to go in and start engaging,” he said. “I have enormous faith in the outreach team, and we will be going back again and again to that spot to help people with housing and services.”

Dufty said he was encouraged that this month, the Board of Supervisors allocated an extra $3 million for homeless shelter, housing and counseling.

The camp has been regularly visited for years by city police, CHP officers including Wrathall, street counselors and officials of the California Department of Transportation – which owns the on-ramp – and partially cleared out every month.

But lately it had grown to include a community garden, a bucketful of dead rats and a fire pit for melting rubber off salvaged or stolen wiring to sell for recycling. The various agencies determined it was time to move in.

Because campers tore out thousands of dollars of cyclone fencing under the on-ramp to set up tents, Caltrans’ plan is now to install a more durable barrier to try to keep them out. That fence will probably cost about $200,000, said Caltrans spokesman Steve Williams – but even then, the agency knows campers will be back.

“You clean it out today, and they’ll back tomorrow,” he said. “We’re just trying to remediate the problem as best we can.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that until the city has enough housing to readily supply to every homeless person, clearing out camps is just harassment.

“There’s no point to it,” she said. “With nowhere to go, all you’re doing is dispersing people.”

“I’m sleeping here tonight as soon as these guys leave,” said Tasha Ward, 21. “They’ve got too many restrictions inside, and I want to do my meth and mind my own business.”