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The Imperfect Host, Part Three: The Refugees Of Super Bowl City

San Francisco has a unique relationship with its homeless population, and always has. The arrival of Super Bowl City has complicated things, and displaced people.
February 2, 2016, 7:10pm
Photo by Tarin Towers

This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.

Maybe it's the Super Bowl, or the density of press coverage surrounding Ed Lee, or a heightened awareness of the plight of the homeless since the rains returned to San Francisco. Maybe it's a combination of the three. Whatever the case, more people seem to be noticing the tents along Division Street and in the parts of the Mission District near the on and off-ramps for CA-101 and I-80. Journalists for Alternet and Mission Local spoke to residents of these tent cities, who said they'd been chased out of Super Bowl City, ousted by the Department of Public Works, and hassled by police. A GoFundMe campaign to raise money to replace these tents earned more than $15,000 in four days.


"Police can ticket homeless people based on 22 different violations: sit-lie, loitering, trespassing, camping, blocking the sidewalk, destruction of city property, on and on," Jennifer Friedenbach, of the Coalition for the Homeless, told VICE Sports. She said an informal "seven-ticket rule" was used to threaten homeless individuals with the prospect of jail if they didn't move along. "Public space is for everybody, and police selectively enforce that people can't be [near the Wharf and the Plazas downtown] during the day because of their poverty status, which is a civil and a human rights violation. People have to rest."

Sergeant Michael Andraychak, a spokesperson for SFPD, said neither the seven-ticket rule nor the confiscation of property are department policy. "We don't do that," he said simply. "We work closely with the Homeless Outreach Team, Human Services, the Department of Public Health, and our own mental health workers available for folks who are homeless, trying to get folks off the street and into shelters. If someone were arrested, their property if necessary is placed into bags, tagged, and stored. This is administered by DPW. We don't throw away people's property." Department policy and police behavior, however, are not always the same thing, as both recent and less recent history have shown.

Read More: The Imperfect Host, Part Two: San Francisco Street Hassle

These tent cities aren't new. They fluctuate in size, but in the 20 years I've been in San Francisco, people have lived in shantytowns of tarps and mobile homes on Division Street. On some blocks nearby, near the fire station and the PG&E dispatch yard, the tents form relatively stable, self-contained communities. In others, such as along the embankments bordering Cesar Chavez Street about a mile and a half away, the tents are villages of both industry and chaos. Some professional recyclers sort their hauls there before lugging them to Bayshore Boulevard and one of the few remaining recycling centers that give cash for cans and bottles. Reports of assaults, thefts, and robberies, both within the communities and targeted toward passersby, are not uncommon.


Homeless Czar Sam Dodge, speaking specifically about the encampments under the overpasses along Cesar Chavez Street, told me that when he worked with DPW, they would come in periodically and ask the homeless residents to leave their sites for a few hours. The area would be cleared of garbage and rodents, but not tents or other belongings, and the residents would then be invited to return.

Here to help. Photo by Tarin Towers

Ed Lee made similar statements in his remarks yesterday to the Local Homeless Coordinating Board (LCHB), which is an advisory board that directs continuum of care policy for the Mayor's Office, where he reiterated that the city's policy is not to disrupt people unnecessarily.

"I want an alternative for people other than to live on the street, and until I'm confident that we've got alternatives, I'm not moving people from one corner to the other," Lee said. "Now if a tent city were to emerge that challenges us—as you know, these are voluntary sites—in my experience, if there is a lack of control, sanitary or otherwise, public safety or otherwise, we have to respond to that. There is no magic in this.

"When we have had to move people, we've asked them, Can you come in? Do we have an alternative that's better for you?" Lee was referring to the Navigation Center, which focuses on bringing people from encampments into the housing pipeline.

He continued, "If there are individuals who say, 'I don't want to stay on the streets,' there's going to be a lot more [available to those] individuals to help [them] out. But I'm not into moving people from one corner to the other, unless there is good reason to, and that's usually going to be reflected in issues of sanitation, issues of crime, their safety as well as the safety of people who want to traverse those corridors."


Who Are You Looking At?

The last point-in-time homeless count (a one-night, citywide census conducted by dozens of volunteers and city personnel) was in February 2015. The count identified 6,686 persons homeless in San Francisco. In 2005, the count was 6,248 persons. Forty-six percent of those sleep on the street. Contrary to the popular mythology that people move to San Francisco to be homeless here because of some magical combination of weather and public services, 71 percent of those who spoke to the surveyors were San Francisco residents when they lost their housing.

A more comprehensive report presented yesterday to the LCHB by Stephen Adviento of the SF Human Services Agency provides even more sobering numbers. The report, which focused only on shelters and transitional and supportive housing, counted 6,802 individual clients of the emergency shelter system, as well as 326 families. These figures do not include people sleeping on the streets who never checked into a shelter.

Please understand, it's for the people. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl City's site, despite the publicity around the housing and ushering out of people living there, is not home to San Francisco's densest homeless population. Dodge described going out with the Homeless Outreach Team (or HOT) over the past few months, at all different hours, and finding on any given day 10 to 20 people sleeping in the area where Super Bowl City now stands.

District 3 encompasses the Financial District as well as Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach, and it's home to the components of Super Bowl Week that are North of Market Street, such as Justin Herman Plaza. This is Supervisor Aaron Peskin's turf, and 242 homeless people, sheltered and unsheltered, were counted there, up from 190 people in 2013.


South of Market Street, where many streets have been blocked off for logistics and security, is in District 6; so is Moscone Center, which is hosting the "NFL Experience Driven by Hyundai," the paid-entry portion of the festivities. District 6 includes several other neighborhoods, including mid-Market, the Tenderloin, and parts of the Mission District. Per the survey, 3,487 people are homeless in District 6, or a little over half the city's overall homeless population. Jane Kim is the supervisor there.

When Peskin and Kim filed emergency legislation seeking reimbursement from the NFL and the Host Committee for costs incurred by the Super Bowl, it was not just because the crowds are going to be attending events on their turf. It's because city services—police, fire and rescue, emergency management, transit, street cleaning, and homeless services—that come out of the budget now, in service of an entertainment event, are funds that won't be available the rest of the year. "With city departments being asked to cut their budgets across the board, we should be watching every penny for the needs of our residents citywide," Peskin said on his Facebook page.

In an interview with KALW, Kim stressed that the NFL's $12 billion revenue last year is more than the City and County of San Francisco's annual budget. "We need to assess whether or not it's appropriate for us to foot the bill for a corporate PR event," she said, "and I don't think it is." She mentioned that the costs of large conventions, such as those put on by Oracle and SalesForce, are paid for by their corporate sponsors. "I think it's ironic that they don't want to pay for it when it's just a 30-second commercial for them," Kim said. "One 30-second commercial costs $5 million dollars," which is roughly the bill the city will receive when the Super Bowl is over.


Boots on the Ground

Sam Dodge has worked with the homeless in San Francisco since 2000, minus five years in the middle as an associate staff analyst for the New York Department of Homeless Services. As deputy director of the Mayor's Office of HOPE (HOPE stands for Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement), Dodge spearheaded the creation of the Navigation Center in the Mission District; previously he'd launched Pit Stop, a mobile service that provides clean toilets and sinks and disposal for dog waste and used sharps. He was promoted to director this past fall, when his predecessor, Bevan Dufty, announced his retirement.

In December, a month after Dodge assumed his new post, the Mayor's Office announced the creation of a new City Department to End Homelessness that would, among other things, coordinate the work of city staffers and nonprofits and combine separate efforts of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Human Services. Lee has committed $1 billion over the next four years to this new department.

Dodge, in the middle of strategizing how to find a new home for the Navigation Center (which needs to clear its lot in order to make way for construction of permanent affordable housing), managing a winter shelter plan for the cold and rains expected with this year's El Niño storms, and dealing with all the perceived and actual problems connected with Super Bowl City, is also figuring out how to transform a Mayor's Office program into a new City department.


Citizens of Super Bowl City. Photo by Tarin Towers

"Look at the Obama Administration," Dodge told me in an interview. "I love it that he said he's curing cancer. We can do amazing things. We can solve homelessness, we know what to do. Every single person can be housed; it's feasible, it's the right thing to do, it's economical, it's not a burden on the biggest economy in the world."

In the near term, plans to house the homeless for the winter include using the Navigation Center program, which can house 75 people at a time. That doesn't sound like a lot, but the Navigation Center's deliberately smaller number of beds, in combination with a higher staff-to-client ratio, has proved over the past eleven months to provide a more welcoming, stable landing spot for people ready to get off the street. SF HOT, under the auspices of the Human Services Agency, approaches people living on the street and offers the Navigation Center as a path to housing. Encampments don't have to break up by gender; people can bring their partners, their belongings, and their dogs, and they have priority to be housed in one of the more than 500 dedicated SRO hotel rooms that have been rehabbed by the city for permanent, affordable housing for the homeless.

Men on the Street

At a bus shelter near the foot of Market Street on January 19—the day before Super Bowl City construction began—one young woman was waiting for the HOT team, who had arranged a bed in the Navigation Center for her and would be returning in their van to collect her and her stuff. She had a small shopping cart and was excited to be able to change into a new-looking pair of shoes she'd just groundscored, put on fresh lipstick, and charge her phone when she arrived at the Navigation Center. That and have a place to sleep. She was giddy and optimistic.

I spoke to some of the men living at that bus stop who weren't that interested in the Navigation Center. Rolf, in his mid-60s, spoke admiringly of what it had to offer—for other people. "People can take their friends, their shopping carts, their dogs. But 75 people! That's too many. That's not for me. Plus, you have to let some 25-, 30-year-old boss you around, let them tell you when you can smoke, when you can take a piss or a shit. Forget it."


Dodge stresses that one of the draws of the Navigation Center is to overcome that loss of control that people who live on the street sometimes feel when coming into the shelter system. "It's very important that people hold onto their autonomy," he said. "There's no curfews, the sleeping areas are open 24 hours if you like to sleep during the day and be up at night. As long as you're working toward housing and making your appointments, you can manage your life as you see fit. The showers are open 24 hours, the laundry is open."

When I mentioned to Rolf that he could get housing by going through the Navigation Center, he said, "That's what they're saying, but you have to put up with so much crap first. I don't have a cart or a wife or a dog, I'll be all right."

Division Street, San Francisco. Photo by Tarin Towers

It was due to rain that night, but Stephan, 73, another denizen of the bus stop, said he'd be fine right there under the plexiglas. "Mostly it's OK, even in the rain, but when there's a storm, with the wind my sleeping bag gets wet," he said. "Mostly just the top though, that's not so bad. Sometimes it's worse." During the day, the men said, they were fine to hang out under the plentiful overhangs at nearby Embarcadero Center shopping mall, or to warm up inside the Ferry Building. "During the day, they don't mind, they leave you alone," Stephan said, with assent from Rolf, "but not so much at night."

Stephan then rattled off details of the best all-night bus lines to ride end-to-end if you wanted to be indoors. "The 38-Geary, the 5-Fulton, it's an hour, hour-twenty each way, it drops you off right there at Ocean Beach, and there's an all night Subway [restaurant] where you can have your coffee and hang out until you're ready to get on another bus." Coincidentally, those are two of the bus lines whose outbound terminals have been diverted away from Super Bowl City.


When I talked to them two weeks ago, I asked Rolf and Stephan where they thought they would go if the construction and the fences and the police and security forced them away from their bus stop. "The cops haven't been any worse so far," Rolf said. "They mostly leave us alone, but of course we can't stay here once they put things up. We don't know any more than you do. No one's telling us anything. I'll just take it day by day."

Stephan said the same thing, in the same words, when I asked him if he had an alternate plan. "I'll just take it day by day."

Sharing the Corridor

At the LHCB meeting, in one of two questions from the public, a reporter asked Mayor Lee—how could you not?—about his fateful comments this summer on the homeless having to leave the Embarcadero for the Super Bowl.

"Wow," said Lee, who had to have been expecting the question. "It's not surprising that SF Weekly takes words out." His response drew laughter, perhaps out of shock at the returned jab. "I did have to say that when we [host] a Super Bowl, as with any other event, that people [would] have to move from those areas, but that we would assist them. And that's not only what I meant, but that's actually what I said." Lee compared Super Bowl City to a parade or other large event where the City tells the homeless that they have to "share the corridor" with activities that are going to generate a profit for the city.


Lee described Sam Dodge's work with the HOT team in the months preceding the event. "Clearly we were going to use that area for the events that we have, and clearly, the idea was that this would help city generate those revenues we can use to focus on long-term solutions, as we are doing." Not everyone wanted to go into the Navigation Center or be sheltered, Lee said, and "they recognized that we were having an event, so they found places they were comfortable in." It's hard to know how Lee is so sure about that, but there wasn't time for more questions.


The night before Super Bowl City's grand opening, I ran into Rolf again. It was midnight, but dozens of union workers still schlepped and wired and drilled and hammered the corporate booths into place all around the corner where I met him, as they would all night. The event perimeter and security gates hadn't yet been locked around the area that includes the bus shelter he calls home.

Rolf hadn't been ousted from his spot, but he wasn't in a talking mood. A week of construction combined with denser police and security personnel presence—as well as the sensory barrage from Klieg lights, skyscraper-sized TV displays, and sound checks of multiple stadium-grade sound systems—had to be taking its toll. Even though Rolf's regular roost is outdoors, a hard plastic seat under a safety glass awning, he generally manages to sleep well enough to get through the rest of each day down by Ferry Plaza.

I had mentioned Rolf and the others I'd spoken to while interviewing Sam Dodge. "You and I know, a good night's sleep, a warm shower—that's part of the good life," Dodge told me. "Last night, my daughter happened to sleep through the night, and I woke up this morning like, 'My gosh! New man, new day.' It makes such a difference. These things really do help, in all aspects of life. Warm food, good meals… If this gentleman were to come in, I think he'd be happy with what he found."

Rolf wasn't happy with the current situation, and he wasn't happy with the prospects of shelter. But he was determined to take things day by day.

By that afternoon, Rolf and Stephan were nowhere to be found. A man about their age, dressed in tourist clothes, sat at their bus stop, looking for all the world every bit as weary as a man with nowhere else to be.

If you are in San Francisco and concerned about a homeless person, or if you want to know where there is an open shelter bed available, call 311 rather than 911. The Homeless Outreach Team will be on duty during Super Bowl Week, just as they are all year round.

See all of VICE Sports' Super Bowl 50 coverage here.