A few months ago, a group of 15-20 people living on the streets came together to found Box City, a "transitional community" constructed out of found materials. Created with the support of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge (SFHC), the city is located at Seventh and Hubbell streets, on a patch of land
underneath near the Caltrain tracks.
Box City's goal was to create a new model to assist those living on the streets, providing a more stable, secure alternative to the city's many tent encampments that also had a lessened impact on their neighbors. But while organizers reached out to local agencies for assistance with the project, they say they received little response. Now, the city has informed Box City's residents that they will be evicted on January 10th.
In response, Box City residents, led by SFHC community liaison and former mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss, are calling on the city to work with them, rather than kick them out.
Over the past three months, Weiss has been working with Box City's residents to develop a community management structure, in which residents are collectively accountable for creating a safe, clean area in which they can sleep. The goal, she said, is to make life "less bad" for residents and the surrounding community by addressing the main concerns about encampments: sanitation and safety.
In a new change.org petition, Weiss is calling on city agencies, namely the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (DHSH) and SF Public Works (SFPW), to participate in a pilot program offering coordinated trash disposal and pick-up, agreed-upon cleaning schedules, and clear storage guidelines to Box City's residents, to help address neighbors' concerns about cleanliness at the site.
As we've previously reported, neighborhood complaints are a major factor in the city's prioritization of which encampments to address. If Box City's residents are willing and able to maintain the encampment in a manner that addresses the sanitary and safety concerns of its neighbors, the city would be less likely to target it for removal, Weiss said.
While she is the first to note that Box City is not an ideal living arrangement, Weiss said it's become an important option for a core group of residents who disdain shelters, yet seek a safer alternative to traditional encampments.
As part of an effort to increase cleanliness, Box City residents have had 24-hour access to a port-a-potty since September, and a shower was recently installed at the encampment. Weiss also collaborated with Moksha Osgood, of Moksha Woodwork Designs, to help several residents replace their tents with sturdier sleep and storage structures, built largely out of found materials.
But consistent trash pickup remains a problem, Weiss said. As a result, trash often spills far into the Seventh Street gutter, blocking parking spots and sometimes impeding the bike lane.
Volunteers have conducted site-wide clean-up efforts and added several new trash receptacles, but Public Works, concerned about workers' safety, remains hesitant about conducting regular trash pick-up in the area, Weiss said.
Public Works spokesperson Mindy Linetzky says that the agency "goes by that area periodically, as well as other encampments, to pick up loose trash and any garbage that has been put into bags. [But] there are still hazardous and unsanitary conditions at that site that require ongoing maintenance by Public Works crews."
City officials also say that even if the sanitation issue was fully addressed, concerns about safety would remain, especially in the wake of this week's double homicide at an encampment at 16th and Shotwell streets.
"Large encampments are dangerous for the tenants and people living nearby," said Randy Quezada, communications and community relations manager for DHSH. Interpersonal conflicts between encampment residents can be heightened by substance abuse issues.
Box City's notice to vacate came from the city's relatively new Encampment Resolution Team, which gave residents advance notice so that they can work with the team to receive counseling, temporary housing (including Navigation Center stays), and health care.
While "we can't compel people to accept services," Quezada said, the goal is to work with Box City's residents to find a safer alternative to living on the streets, whether that's permanent housing, reconnecting with family or friends, or going into detox or long-term rehab. The team also works with the surrounding community, addressing safety concerns and developing strategies to ensure that the encampment doesn't reestablish itself.
But many of Box City's residents don't want to go to shelters, due to bad prior experiences, Weiss said. She believes that the limited spaces in city-supported shelters should be kept available for people in need of more critical services, and that Box City residents should be given a chance to undertake their pilot project, with city support to keep the area clean and safe.
“We definitely want to work with the city, and hope that some Box City residents will get meaningful transition support through the city over the next few weeks,” Weiss said of the effort to clear the area. But she also believes that many of Box City's residents will ultimately refuse the help and relocate to other neighborhoods, creating similar issues.
“Those new encampments will need the same support, basic sanitation services, and garbage pick-up," she said. "We need to try a new approach that actively addresses livability and safety concerns for people who live in and near encampments."
Weiss hopes that her petition will inspire collaboration between city agencies and encampment residents, resulting in a stable transitional housing effort either at Box City or somewhere else in the city. This would include limiting the geographic range of the encampment, establishing and enforcing accountability standards such as quiet hours and cleanliness of the area, and identifying and supporting residents' paths to permanent housing, she said.
But for now, the expectation is that by January 10th, "everyone has worked together and cleared the area," Quezada said. He said that DHSH will do everything it can to get to know the residents individually and provide resources that work best for their situations, but Box City "is the street—and that's not where people should be."
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