The following story comes from reporter Laura Newberry, a student at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism.
Antoinette Banks was at a gym in the Financial District recently when she looked out the window to see a man standing outside a tent wielding a foot-long knife.
When she left the gym, she told police at Thursday night's community meeting at the Northern Police District, she walked around the block instead of going directly to her bus stop.
The Pacific Heights resident was one of 15 who attended the meeting, and essentially all posed the same question as Banks: what are police doing about the encampments?
“A lot of things happen in them, and they're like a cloak,” Banks said of homeless tents.
“There are streets I won't walk down.”
Four Northern Police District officers—including Capt. John Jaimerena and three officers who focus on homelessness in their everyday jobs—offered the same response: It’s not illegal to be homeless.
Police will respond only when those living on the streets commit actual crimes, said Lt. Mike Nevin, the homeless outreach liaison for the district that covers Western Addition, Pacific Heights, Japantown, Polk Gulch, Russian Hill and the Marina.
The Department of Public Health’s Outreach Team deals with all other issues, Nevin explained.
“Are you at any point allowed to seize someone’s tent?” someone called out at the meeting.
“I would not feel comfortable directing an officer to take someone’s personal property,” Nevin replied. “Even if we could seize tents, you would see the tents pop up again tomorrow.”
But that could change. San Francisco residents will vote on a ballot measure—Proposition Q—in November that would ban homeless encampments and empower police officers to remove them within a day.
And some have already taken the tent issue into their own hands.
At the meeting Thursday, Nob Hill resident Erica Sandberg said those at a homeless encampment in front of a children's playground had left hypodermic needles, human waste and and other debris behind—so she told them they needed to leave. (Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that Sandberg herself had seized tents.)
“If we all did it and said ‘Nuh uh uh’, wagged ours fingers—you know, the the old kindergarten teacher thing—I think we would have some progress,” said Sandberg, who has has been an outspoken proponent of calling the authorities when homeless people are unconscious, dealing drugs, aggressively panhandling or using streets as bathrooms.
Lt. Greg Kane said there simply aren’t enough officers to handle every petty crime committed by members of the homeless community when police are out handling robberies and shootings.
Between October 2011 and October 2015 there were some 48,000 complaints submitted to the 311 app about encampments. Like those residents, Banks too made a 311 report on the knife-wielding man, but police made it clear that many of these go nowhere.
“If that homeless person isn't on your front porch, and there are 20 calls to handle ... that’s a low-priority call,” Kane said.
Nevin said that at the end of the day, arresting homeless people for minor offenses lends to a revolving door at local jails.
“If they're homeless going in, they'll be homeless going out,” he said, adding that the city ultimately needs to expand its shelter system.
Nevin said out-of-the-box programs that aim to reduce homelessness in the city are also helpful. He used the example of Homeward Bound, an initiative through the city’s Department of Human Services that has given thousands of homeless people one-way bus tickets home since 2005.
The residents gave their own suggestions for combatting homelessness, including bolstered police presence at larger homeless camps. Four business owners said a tent community is driving away shoppers at the plaza located on the 1400 block of Fillmore Street.
“I have been trying relentlessly for eight years to get that strip mall cleaned up. We need your help,” Sheila Harris Young, who owns Bumzy’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, said to the officers. “We need you to be more visible down there.”
Cathedral Hill resident Jim Anderson piped up at the mention of homeless people coming to San Francisco from other cities and towns. Anderson said doesn’t have a problem with the homeless—he has a problem with criminals. And in his community, he said, he has neighbors who have been assaulted by homeless people. He has seen them shoot up on street corners.
The city needs to take those who “are urban camping out of the urban environment,” Anderson said.
“Talk to the people out on the streets and ask them why they're here,” he added. “It's because of us, because we offer a warm embrace.”
Nevin, who led most of the discussion, laughed.
“Police officers would like to see a resolution to this issue, too,” Nevin said of homelessness. “If society and the city were able to get a better handle on how to deal with this, we would be throwing a big party.”