In the trendy South of Market neighborhood, in the shadow of the Caltrain station, underneath the freeway overpass, there's something you probably never knew existed and something the police, public works, health department, and CHP are trying to get rid of: One of San Francisco's largest homeless encampments.
"Mainly, it's to remove garbage, excrement, rats, that kind of thing. It gets overrun," explained CHP Officer Sarah Wrathall, admitting that the operation was a sweep and more than just a clean-up. She estimates that 30 to 40 people lived at the camp and expects that as usual, they'll try to return. Although this time, Caltrans plans to erect a metal fence that can't be cut down like it has before.
Asked if she'll come back after the sweep, homeless camper Kristen Odoibhilin said, "No, because they said that they're going to be coming every week and it's just a pain in the ass to move all the time." The city's homeless outreach team says it routinely visits to offer services including shelter beds and stabilization rooms. Latasha West says after living at the camp for years, she decided Tuesday to get off the street. "Someone came in and actually talked to me and wanted to see why I was homeless, actually cared, showed some interest in it," she said explaining what made it different this time.
However, many of her neighbors don't want to leave. Homeless advocates say this was a safe community and pushing people out doesn't solve the root causes of homelessness. "The point is, where are these people going to go? They can't afford... There's not enough housing in the city," says John Gallagher with the SF Coalition on Homelessness.
There's no argument from experts who say that's why they must prioritize their resources. "Obviously, there is a finite quantity of everything and so that's part of it. And, the way we deal with that is to offer help to those who need it most," says Rajesh Parkeh with the San Francisco Public Health Department. Ten people accepted help at the camp Tuesday including Jamie Crisco, a homeless vet. "So, I'm taking it, finally. I'm done with this life," he said.
The homeless coalition says school-aged children were living at the camp, but the CHP and the city dispute that. Some of the homeless were seen making their way back to the area Tuesday evening meaning the sweep could end up being just another temporary clean-up.