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.