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Bouldergate: How San Franciscans Found Themselves Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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A homeless person sleeps in Clinton Park in San Francisco's Mission Dolores neighborhood, where neighbors put out boulders in September to block encampments.  (Taylor Ahlgren via Twitter)

This is what it might look like if Sisyphus dabbled in urban planning.

In early September, a group of residents living near Clinton Park in San Francisco's Mission Dolores neighborhood triggered a strong backlash when they bought two dozen boulders and put them on the sidewalk in an effort to thwart the homeless encampments and illicit drug activity that they said has become commonplace there.

Since the start of the year, neighbors had called 311 and 911 hundreds of times, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, detailing scenes of round-the-clock drug use, needles scattered on the sidewalk and inebriated homeless people cooking on open flames and raucously partying late into the night.

After the city failed to resolve the situation, neighbors took matters into their own hands: Without official sanction, they rolled out the hefty boulders, positioning them to occupy prime sidewalk real estate — a geologically inspired effort to clear the area. (They reportedly raised $2,000 via GoFundMe for the boulders).

It didn’t work out quite as they had hoped.

As word of the boulders spread among homeless advocates — after it was first reported by Hoodline last week — Clinton Park neighbors soon realized that in their bid to put out one fire, they’d ignited a much larger firestorm that hits at the heart of San Francisco’s most pressing and divisive issue: how to handle the city’s seemingly intractable homeless crisis.

Activists converged nightly on Clinton Park, a narrow byway off Market Street, to push the boulders off the sidewalk into the street. Some, according to the Chronicle, reportedly harassed neighbors with threatening messages on social media, accusing them of being anti-homeless and inhumane and resorting to cruel, passive-aggressive Band-Aid tactics, rather than working toward real solutions.

“All you had to do is come and say something to us. We’re all pretty reasonable people and we’re very kind,” Daniel Bartosiewicz, a homeless person who had camped at Clinton Park for months, said in a Twitter video. “All of you guys just would smile and walk by and silently act like everything was OK instead of coming and confronting us.”

One demonstrator tried, unsuccessfully, to auction the rocks on Craigslist, a post that was quickly removed.

The activists were rebelling against a growing urban design trend known as “hostile architecture,” one that restricts the use of public space and is often aimed at discouraging homeless people from congregating or lying down.

Critics have noted the expansion of “anti-homeless” designs around the city, including spiked planter boxes, newly erected barricades and benches with segmented dividers.

“Hostile architecture is not a solution to homelessness and it shouldn't ever be considered in that way,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the city’s Coalition on Homelessness, said Tuesday on KQED Forum. “It's just making it harder for people to be able to sleep and rest and pushing people out of particular areas and really does not get us anywhere.”

Homeless activists converged last week on Clinton Park to protest against neighbors who had placed boulders on the sidewalk to thwart homeless activity. (Taylor Ahlgren via Twitter)

The fracas — which has since drawn national attention — has come to symbolize the city's inability to adequately address and manage its homelessness problem, and starkly underscores the sharp wedge the issue has driven between residents.

Since 2017, the number of unhoused San Franciscans has risen 17% as rents and real estate prices continue to explode and the city — despite throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year at the problem — struggles to create or preserve enough affordable housing or rehabilitation services.

As of Wednesday, more than 1,100 people were on the shelter waiting list in San Francisco, a city with an annual budget over $12 billion and the highest concentration of billionaires in the world.

Friedenbach said the "wait for housing is years and years long."

“Folks don't have anywhere to go. And I think the city’s response has been primarily moving folks from place to place," she added. “That locks people into a cycle of homelessness even further and really oftentimes creates a lot more instability for folks and [makes it] more difficult for people to get off the streets."

For their part, the neighbors behind the rocks said they had no ill intent toward the homeless people living outside their doors. The boulder plan, they said, was a last resort, rolled out only after they had made repeated attempts to enlist the help of the city’s outreach services.

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“This is about people yelling and screaming at 3 in the morning and openly flashing weapons,” one woman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m not rich. I’m having a hard enough time making it myself. They even set up a shelf and were openly dealing drugs, and nobody was doing anything.”

At residents’ request, city workers came through many times to put the boulders back on the sidewalk, only to find them pushed onto the street hours later.

By the end of last weekend, the group of neighbors decided they’d had enough, and summoned city workers yet again, who returned Monday — their fourth visit in nearly as many days — to remove the boulders, placing them in storage.

“We traded criminals for activists and the media,” one unnamed resident told the Chronicle. “We don’t want to feel the fire anymore."

San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the neighborhood, said he sympathizes with residents who are seeking a safe environment to live in but also recognizes the frustration felt by the homeless population and their defenders.

“Certainly, I think there's the will in the mayor's office and on the board to find additional resources and try and get people into long-term housing solutions,” he told Forum. "But in the short term, we're spending a whole lot of money on moving people around."

Mandelman noted how split the city is on the issue and how difficult it has been to reach a consensus.

“I think these boulders sort of encapsulate that. There are a lot of folks who see any effort to address any of the street behavior issues as a war on the homeless," he said. “And then … I hear from my constituents who are not hostile to homeless people but are not willing to continue living in the conditions San Francisco is in.”

Clinton Park neighbors told the San Francisco Examiner they’re still intent on cleaning up the street and are considering their next move — one that could involve another landscaping tactic.

Mohammed Nuru, the city’s public works director, on Monday told the Examiner that he commended the group for banding together to find a creative “solution.”

“The problem is they were not big enough,” Nuru said, suggesting a permanent fix could involve larger boulders.

Rachel Gordon, a public works spokeswoman confirmed her department had supported the neighbors’ unconventional boulder initiative.

“We decided we'll see what we could do to work with them to somehow sanction the boulders that were on the street,” she told Forum. “Obviously, that didn't work out.”

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