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San Francisco Is Clearing Homeless Encampments Ahead of APEC

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Tents line a city sidewalk.
Homeless tents are seen near the City Hall of San Francisco on August 29, 2022. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

San Francisco is suspending access to one of its only walk-in homeless shelters during the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference to prioritize beds for unhoused people living near the vicinity of the event, a source told KQED.

The move sheds light on some of the city’s opaque plans for how it is preparing to keep streets clear and counteract doom-loop narratives about crime and homelessness in the city ahead of the major event when President Biden and more than a dozen other heads of state, CEOs and journalists from around the globe will descend on San Francisco.

During the event, the Santa Maria y Marta shelter, located at 1050 S. Van Ness Ave., will reserve its 56 beds for people who typically camp in the APEC high-security zones, according to Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

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Officials at HSH did respond to requests for comment about its plans for the shelter. However, the city has been open about the fact that it is working aggressively to manicure and prepare for the event.

“When our community hosts events, like APEC, we want to put our best foot forward,” said Emily Cohen, deputy director of communications and legislative affairs for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, in an email to KQED Monday. “Dedicated outreach interventions will be focused on the conference vicinity and offering safe places for people experiencing homelessness will be a priority.”

While the city is not opening up any new shelter specifically for APEC, shelters that operate in the winter such as the Interfaith Winter Shelter will be opening by Nov. 10, just before the conference starts on Nov. 11. The city also has plans to add about 300 beds between November and December to its existing shelters, which were also pre-planned for the winter months.

Rainstorms are forecasted for the week of the event, and it’s possible the city could also activate its warming centers at places like the Public Library.

Advocates like Friedenbach say the city could do more with the millions of dollars it has raised for the event to think through longer-term solutions to homelessness.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation, and unhoused people will be negatively affected by the conference either way,” she told KQED. “We think it would be better for them to expand capacity and open hotel rooms.”

Plans for dealing with homelessness during APEC started months ago, according to Christin Evans, a local business owner and member of the city’s Homeless Oversight Commission.

“It was pretty clear from the beginning that the (HSH) Department was overseeing early outreach efforts to try to understand who was in the vicinity and to also try to make reachable offers of shelter to those individuals,” Evans told KQED.

Multiple media outlets have reported that local and federal security will not allow any unhoused residents within the event’s designated “secure zone,” which will be operated by the U.S. Secret Service.

KQED reached out to multiple city agencies to confirm whether unhoused individuals in the area will be forced to move, however, city officials did not respond to requests to clarify.

What is clear, based on HSH communications, is that the city is working to prioritize shelter placements for unhoused people near the conference venues located at the Moscone Center and around Nob Hill. But it must do so delicately, as the city is currently facing a lawsuit over how it responds to tents on sidewalks and treats homeless people during encampment clearings.

In September 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness sued San Francisco for violating its own rules for removing homeless encampments. A federal judge later banned San Francisco from clearing homeless encampments unless they can offer people living in them alternative shelter. (Under the injunction, the city can still ask people to temporarily move for cleaning and accessibility purposes.)

But the city doesn’t have enough housing or temporary shelter to offer everyone living on its streets. More than 7,000 are estimated to be homeless in San Francisco, and more than half of those people don’t have access to any form of shelter, according to city data.

Meanwhile, there were 468 people on the city’s online waitlist for shelter on Wednesday, less than a week from the event’s launch. The city has about 3,000 shelter beds in its system, which is currently at 91% capacity.

“One of the issues, in this case, is the lack of transparency from the city in terms of what its plans are and how it handles encampment resolution, which can lead to a lot of issues with enforcement of the ordinances they are supposed to be following,” said John Do, an attorney with the ACLU, which is representing plaintiffs in the homelessness lawsuit against San Francisco.

People like Taj and Matt, an unhoused couple living in the South of Market neighborhood, appear to be caught in the city’s impossible juggle.

About a week ago, the two slept on Merlin Street under the 80 freeway overpass in San Francisco when a cadre of city workers woke them up and told them to move.

A Public Works employee told them they needed to clear the area for a big event coming up where President Joe Biden and other heads of state from nearly 20 countries would be coming to town, according to Matt.

They didn’t have any other place to go. So now, Taj says, the couple stays “anywhere we don’t get harassed or our stuff stolen.”

On Wednesday morning, they were in SoMA and asked to shoo again.

“They didn’t offer anything,” said Taj on Wednesday from a SoMa bus stop. “It’s bad enough we are in this position. You know how bad we want to be inside?”

KQED reporter Vanessa Rancaño contributed to this story. 

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