A look at SF's struggle to clear homeless encampments as hundreds wait for shelters

Luz Pena Image
Thursday, November 30, 2023
SF's struggle to clear homeless encampments as many wait for shelters
As demand grows, waitlists for San Francisco's housing and emergency shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness get longer.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- San Francisco has one of the nation's highest per capita concentrations of homelessness. High housing costs, drug abuse, and COVID are some of the factors contributing to the crisis.

Every two years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities count the number of people experiencing homelessness.

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In February 2022, the city counted 7,754 homeless individuals.

Johnny Crawford has been homeless since 2018. He is one of over 4,000 homeless who live on the streets of San Francisco.

"It's interesting. If you're not cut out for it, you're not going to make it. If you're cut out for it, you can survive," said Crawford.

San Francisco has about 1,000 occupied vehicles every night. Many are families with kids. Over 100 of these RV's are parked along Lake Merced Boulevard. All homeless.

"I sleep here with my daughter. My two kids. My husband sleeps in the front," said Nelly Sorto while showing us around her RV.

Nelly has been renting an RV for the last year. Before living in the RV, they rented a room in the Mission District but her work hours were cut during the pandemic and they had to move out.

"The rent is too much money. After the Coronavirus, work is down. I can't work too much, and my check is like $200 - 300 so I can't pay rent," said Sorto, who works as a housekeeper in a motel.

San Francisco has about 10,000 units of housing for individuals experiencing homelessness, but just 2,300 units of housing for families. As demand grows, waitlists for housing and emergency shelter get longer.

"Our shelter system is about 91% full," said Emily Cohen, Deputy Director for Communications and Legislative Affairs for the SF Homelessness & Supportive Housing Department.

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Luz Pena: "Can you get shelter on the same day that you need it?"

Emily Cohen: "Yes, often you can often."

Pena: "Not always."

Cohen: "Not always."

Pena: "What about families?"

Cohen: "Most of the time families can get an emergency placement the day they need one, and it can take a few weeks to get a single room. That's why we have the emergency."

Pena: "Weeks. Why so long?"

Cohen: "Because our long-term family shelters are well occupied."

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As of November 27, 2023, there were close to 500 pending shelter waitlist applications. The city prioritizes who gets into a shelter.

"If someone has a long-term chronic illness, they're going to have a higher prioritization than someone who is able-bodied and healthy," said Cohen.

San Francisco faced another setback in clearing homeless encampments in the last year an injunction that was brought forth after the Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit against the city.

They alleged encampment sweeps violated the rights of the unhoused. This has blocked the city from enforcing certain laws, such as sleeping on public property.

The debate has polarized the city, even leading Mayor London Breed to rally outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The fact that the courts have crippled our ability to do our job to help get people into shelter is criminal. If we have a place for someone to go. They need to go. There has to be accountability," said Mayor Breed.

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The coalition has requested the city offer shelter before removing individuals from the streets.

"We are trying to get them to stop illegally confiscating property and criminalizing them when they have no choice but to be on the streets," said Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

Recently, the court provided clarification allowing for the city to continue cleanup efforts.

ABC7 News went out with the members of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management and the Homeless Outreach team to see the process.

During the three-hour effort, at least 10 people out of more than 50 tents got shelter or housing.

Jose Torres with the Homeless Outreach Team says there's not enough space for everyone in need.

Luz Pena: "How do you do this job when there is not enough shelter, as you say?"

Jose Torres: "Yeah, it's difficult. It's difficult to talk to people and not have enough to offer."

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