homelessness

San Francisco’s homeless complain about ‘prison’-like conditions at the new Pier 80 shelter

Michael Rosen

Lindsey Boynton said she had no choice as two San Francisco police officers escorted her to to Pier 80, the location of mayor Ed Lee’s newest attempt to help solve the city’s homelessness crisis, saying that she needed to bring all of her belongings with her.

Boynton left the shelter after a few days.

“I went there and it sucked ass,” she told me. “It’s like prison.”

When she arrived at Pier 80’s makeshift shelter, she passed through a barbed-wire fence and walked for what felt like half a mile to the entrance. She was told she needed to check in with someone every 48 hours, or she’d lose her place. She slept on an uncomfortable mat alongside strangers, and the bathrooms were porta-potties. When she missed her check-in time, workers at Pier 80 called her “AWOL” and moved her possessions from their original spot. Though the belongings hadn’t actually been taken away—only bagged and relocated to a different part of the shelter—no one told Boynton where they’d gone. She started crying.

Boynton now lives on Division Street, in the now-infamous “tent city” that the city’s Department of Public Health says will be cleared out by the end of the week.

“The encampments bordering the areas between South Van Ness Avenue and 11 Street, on both the east and west sides of Division Street are unsanitary due to accumulation of garbage, human feces, hypodermic needles, urine odors and other unsanitary conditions,” the Department of Public Health wrote in a statement.

Part of the notice issued to homeless residents on Division Street reads:

Failure to vacate the area by Friday, February 26, 2016 will result in referral to the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Police Department with a recommendation to enforce the Abatement Order to Vacate and remove all encampments on Division Street from South Van Ness Avenue to 11th Street.

If these reports are correct, Boynton and the many dozens of people living along Division Street underneath the freeway will need to go somewhere else; it appears Pier 80, which the city is spending a reported $1 million a month to keep open, is where city officials want them to end up.

That might not be possible; as the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness Jennifer Friedenbach pointed out, there are currently over an estimated 650 people on the waitlist for 90-day adult emergency shelter around San Francisco.

If only 50 more beds in Pier 80 open up, which is what the city says the space has room for, it might not be able to house the remaining homeless on Division Street, much less every homeless person on a waitlist for emergency shelter in the city. So if not to Pier 80, where will they go? So far, there aren’t many any specific answers.

The Chronicle’s Tuesday report makes Pier 80 sound like a charming, comfortable place. 98 of 100 beds were occupied on Monday night, the paper reported, and the one homeless person they quoted, Dave Tompkins, said: “This place is nice, it’s clean, it’s comfortable, and it’s drug-free. They don’t treat you like a bug here, you know what I mean?”

The Chronicle went on:

Like the heralded Navigation Center in the Mission, the Pier 80 shelter has no curfew and not many rules. Homeless people can bring all their belongings, as well as their pets and partners, to the site. Belongings are kept behind a chain link fence off to the side, and sleeping mats are spread in rows on the floor nearby.

The shelter serves three meals a day and features showers and toilets, counseling, a smoking tent outside and basketball hoops provided by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

But two homeless San Francisco residents told me that Pier 80’s setup is anything but comfortable. Couper Orona, a resident of the Division Street encampment, said she’s visited the Pier 80 shelter a few times, and hasn’t liked what she’s seen—a makeshift space filled with dodgy characters and thieves.

“It’s like prison,” Orona said.

“I will never move back there,” Boynton told me.

This reflects the sentiment of a few other homeless people I spoke to on Division Street, who hadn’t yet seen the shelter but cited all kinds of concerns about moving to Pier 80.

“Why would I want to sleep on a mat in a gym guarded by barbed wire fences with a bunch of bums I don’t know?” said Arianna Jordan, a homeless woman living on Division Street.

Jordan and her friend, Jason Loomis, said that city workers arrived on Tuesday to offer them a place at Pier 80. But Jordan and Loomis, who said they value the privacy of their own tent over the communal prospects of the 150-person temporary shelter, declined the offer.

“Why sacrifice privacy?” Loomis said. “That’s basically all we have.”

Six homeless people I spoke to on Division Street on Tuesday afternoon told me that workers from San Francisco’s homeless outreach team, or HOT, came by on Tuesday morning informing them of the benefits of moving to Pier 80. These outreach workers, the homeless people said, also compared Pier 80 to the city’s Navigation Center, a well-known (and well-liked) shelter where those lucky enough to get a spot can sleep, shower, and come and go as they please.

Unlike the Navigation Center, however, Pier 80 currently offers virtually no privacy and only a mat to sleep on, and the heavy security and drab aesthetics reported by some who have visited make the shelter feel hostile and uninviting.

Rachael Kagan, a spokesperson for San Francisco’s Department of Health, confirmed that the HOT had been involved in homeless relocation efforts.

“I would imagine that that’s true,” Kagan said. “The homeless outreach team are actively working with people to help them relocate, and Pier 80 is one of the better options.”

The frustrations of some homeless San Francisco residents stand in contrast to an essay written by San Francisco supervisor Scott Weiner on Tuesday, titled, “Tents on Sidewalks Are Inhumane and Aren’t Housing.” Weiner refers to Pier 80 in his piece, writing, “The City recently opened up a new shelter at Pier 80. Unfortunately, it’s not yet full.”

Many of the homeless residents on Division Street appear to view Pier 80, rather than their tents, as the less humane option. Orona spoke of a 9 p.m. curfew at Pier 80, past which residents were allowed only to be in the courtyard. A homeless man named Chris told me, simply, “Pier 80 is jail.”

Though Pier 80, as it currently stands, seems less than ideal, director of the Coalition on Homelessness Jennifer Friedenbach points out that it’s a blessing for some to receive any kind of shelter.

“No matter how fucked up it is, people will go for it,” Friedenbach says. “It’s unfortunate it looks like a jail, but it’s full.”

Some reports have suggested that having the city’s health department take the lead on the Pier 80 relocation was intended to deflect criticism away from the Mayor’s office, which has been pilloried before on issues relating to the city’s homeless population.

“We’re in discussions with the port about how long we can have this happen,” Lee told the Chronicle, in reference to Pier 80, which is currently scheduled to close at the end of March. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Attempts to contact the Department of Human Service and the office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement, or HOPE, after working hours went unanswered.

The city faced a flood of criticism in the lead-up to the Super Bowl for relocating homeless people from Justin Herman Plaza in order to clear up Super Bowl City. They were also accused of relocating those same people to Division Street. Now, the city seeks to clear out that same street completely.

But at the Division Street encampment, the city’s homeless appeared less than thrilled by the prospect of being moved three miles away, to a new shelter with a mixed reputation.

“At the end of March, they’ll just release us into oblivion,” Loomis said, feeding his dog a piece of fried chicken. He later wondered where, exactly, he was supposed to go.

Update, 2/24/16, 10:37 am: According to Sam Dodge, the director of HOPE and the mayor’s point person on homelessness, since Boynton’s departure, the city now allows people to call a Pier 80 service worker on a cell phone if they wish to come and go at night, but currently, the port locks the gate at 9 p.m. sharp. He’s meeting with people at the port Wednesday night to hopefully rectify the issue.

Speaking about Pier 80 in a general sense, Dodge told me, “It’s nice to have that much space in a city like San Francisco; usually, we’re so constricted. But it also has to be humane; we do have work to do to help improve the experience for people who are there.”