Darryl McMath is an environmental service worker with Public Works. Dressed in a light-blue Tyvek suit and wearing heavy protective gloves, he approached a homeless man camped on Shotwell Street.
“My friend, are there any other things you would like to get rid of?” McMath asked gently.
McMath threw out a few cardboard boxes, but didn’t disturb the man’s tent or the belongings piled around it — including about two dozen bicycle wheels, a wooden pallet and clothing.
Every day, an average of a ton of trash, human waste and hypodermic needles is hauled off by McMath and other crews across the city.
Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said the crews don’t take personal property or force anyone to move. Instead, they clean around the tents, she said, and try to keep the sidewalks as clean and sanitary as possible.
But at a different encampment, under Highway 101 at San Bruno Avenue, David Tompkins said things are different when the media aren’t around.
“They don’t ask you to move, they tell you to move,” Tompkins said, indicating the Public Works crew. “I woke up to these guys throwing my things in the garbage.”
Every homeless person seems to have a different story. Rebecca Padilla lives in a tent under the freeway on Division Street, where tents often line both sides of the street and fill the median strip. She said she’s been homeless for about a year, and is now worried that the Super Bowl means more trouble from the police.
“We were told that we had to move from the area because of the Super Bowl,” Padilla said. “The mayor doesn’t want all this to be seen by the public eye.”
Mayor Ed Lee made headlines last August when he was widely quoted as saying that the city’s homeless “must leave the streets” before the Super Bowl.
But Sam Dodge, the mayor’s point man on homelessness, said the mayor’s remarks were blown out of proportion.
“There's no formal city policy and no instructions given to cops to move people for the Super Bowl,” Dodge said. “The real things that we're concerned with right now are El Niño and people's health.”
Dodge said outreach workers have been trying to connect homeless people with alternatives, including services and shelter beds. The city operates about 1,200 shelter beds year-round and has been constructing temporary rain shelters for the winter months.
But many of the homeless people we spoke to complained that shelters are dirty, dangerous and, ultimately, only a short-term solution.
“They just let you stay in their shelter for a week or two, and then they throw you back out on the street,” said Marin Santi. At 38, Santi says she’s been homeless since she was 11.
“So it’s like, why put yourself through that, get comfortable in a bed, just to go back out on the streets?" she said. "That’s just a torture of another torture.”
Shortly before Christmas, Santi moved into the city’s new pilot project, the Navigation Center. Unlike other shelters, the Navigation Center is designed for long-term stays. Homeless people can move in as a group and bring their pets -- and they can stay as long as it takes to find permanent housing.
Dodge, whose title is director of the Mayor's Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnership & Engagement (HOPE), knows many of the clients at the Navigation Center. On a recent visit, he congratulated one man on finding housing and gave Santi a hug to welcome her. “Get warm and rest up,” he told Santi.
“I’ve been in and out of group homes,” Santi said. “I never stayed long because I was always paranoid. I have bad paranoia schizophrenia.”
Santi hopes the Navigation Center, which has 75 beds, will give her the safe haven she needs to get her life in order. Dodge says it takes an average of 70 days to place people with long-term housing.
About half of San Francisco's estimated 6,700 homeless people live on the streets -- an existence that makes it hard to avoid breaking the law.
Last year, San Francisco police handed out about 2,300 citations a month — or 77 a day — for offenses such as sleeping in the park, blocking a sidewalk or drinking in public, according to city statistics. When the citations pile up, offenders can be taken to jail.
Santi said she’d been jailed three times.
“They take my tent, they’ve put my dog in jail,” she said. “I have no clothes, no tent, they’ve taken everything I own.” Including, Santi said, her medications for HIV.
Dodge and others recognize the futility of arresting homeless people.
“My police colleagues tell me all the time that they want more real solutions, that people need housing, they need a place to go,” Dodge said. But housing in the Bay Area is already in short supply and building affordable housing can take years.
“Ending homelessness is a matter of both resources and political will and public support,” said Dodge.
The annual homeless count has stayed relatively stable in recent years and suggests only a small growth in actual numbers. Gordon, with the DPW, thinks that widespread development is pushing homeless people into more central areas.
“Our crews certainly have seen that they’re more visible,” Gordon said. And that means more friction and more calls to the city’s 311 information and service request phone line.
It’s often a 311 call that Public Works crews are responding to on their morning routes. Until a long-term solution to homelessness is found, they’ll continue their daily visits to homeless encampments, morning after morning, from 4 a.m. until midday, sweeping, scrubbing and hauling away trash.
“If you could offer a way out, most people here would grab it with both hands,” said David Tompkins, who shelters in a tiny wooden box on wheels that he constructed himself.
Still, Tompkins takes a pretty cynical view of city leadership.