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Responding to homeless crisis, local businesses create Street Reports

June 29, 2016 • 6 mins read
Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson


The following post is part of the San Francisco citywide #SFHomelessProject media coverage for June 29, 2016.

In 2004, a Ten-Year Planning Council was created by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to come up with a plan that would end chronic homelessness in ten years. Today, twelve years later, the number of homeless people in San Francisco continues to hover at about 0.87 percent of the total population, according to a Performance Audit completed for the Board of Supervisors and released this June. The homeless population, in other words, has grown at about the same rate as the rest of the city’s population. It would appear that the City has accomplished nothing in terms of actually lowering the homeless population, despite spending $241 million a year to do so.

homeless encampment
Homeless encampment on Folsom Street

Local residents and business owners are demanding change. Small business owners in particular have recognized that their voice isn’t understood to be a stakeholder in discussions about finding solutions to homelessness crisis. At a June 14 SPUR meeting, “S.F. Has 6,000 People Living on the Streets: Here’s How to House Them,” the head of Mayor Ed Lee’s new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Jeff Kositsky, was asked how he would incorporate the concerns of small businesses into the Department’s efforts. 

He replied that the Department “obviously needs to create a path for complaints, but what we need to prioritize is the experts in the field.” Business owners, however, believe that their experience sharing space with homeless encampments day in and day out might provide the City with some useful data and observations. Certainly, business owners in the Mission, one of the districts with the largest number of visible homeless people, want not merely to shuffle encampments from one block to another, but to find a sustainable solution to the problem of homelessness, whether the cause is primarily economic or a question of health.

Local Businesses Speak with City Officials

Earlier this year, the Mission business community’s search for solutions led them to a joint meeting of the Northeast Mission Business Association (NEMBA) and the Mission Creek Merchants’ Association (MCMA) on May 18, hosted by Townsquared. Mission Police Captain Daniel Perea, Supervisor David Campos, and Larry Stringer, Deputy Director for Operations for the City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) spoke and answered questions. Local merchants asked whom they could call in regards to incidents involving homeless individuals, and for advice in coping with the increasing number of encampments.

According to the Performance Audit, the majority of the money spent on homelessness goes to police responses to calls from residents about homeless-related quality of life law violations. There were over 57,000 such calls last year. The calls almost never result in citations or arrests—neither of which would get a homeless person off the street, except perhaps very temporarily.

Captain Perea discussed SFPD’s options in dealing with encampments and homeless people who appear to be mentally ill or have a drug addiction. Perea claimed that fewer than 5 percent of the homeless people SFPD encounter take of the offer of social services, and many individuals have “barriers” to entering typical shelters, like a spouse, children, or pet. Forcing someone to accept mental health services requires making a case that can be taken to court. Clearing encampments simply means moving them to another street, even if the police give out citations and/or arrest individuals. As Perea said, “Police are not going to solve this problem.”

Mr. Stringer, the Deputy Director of Operations for DPW, spoke briefly about the work his crew does trying to keep sidewalks clean. Perea noted the Mission area “would look like London during the garbage strike, if it weren’t for the DPW.” Stringer told the group that his crews spend about 800 working hours per week coping with local encampments. They now take pictures of areas they’ve just cleaned, because encampments often move right back to the same spot shortly after, and the Department gets complaints that they haven’t cleaned the area at all.

Mission encampment
Encampment on Shotwell Street

Campos told the assembled business owners, “I think there’s a certain mentality that the way it is is okay. [We need to] make a commitment that it’s not okay.” In terms of solutions, “everything has to be on the table.” Merchants asked how they could work with Supervisor Campos’s office to change the status quo. Among other things, Campos touted the Mission’s Navigation Center, which offer homeless people, including those with spouses, children, and pets, temporary supportive housing. The Mission Navigation Center has 75 beds and the new Civic Center Navigation Center, which opened yesterday, June 28, has 93. The SF Chronicle reported that the “Mission’s center has served 550 clients since it opened [in 2015], 80 percent of whom have moved into stable supportive housing or were reunited with friends and family.”

Business owners left the meeting with the understanding that there was no plan in place and that there was nothing they could do, beyond continuing to call SFPD and register incidents.

Street Reports Created

At a June 2 MCMA board meeting, frustrated business owners decided they needed a place local businesses could document incidents, creating a “file” everyone could access and that could be used in presenting to City or State officials. Currently, the police department logs calls, but business owners can’t tell if their neighbors are calling about the same issue, or how many calls the department may have gotten about any particular incident.

The MCMA asked if the group could use Townsquared to house their “file,” and we now have #StreetReports, a channel available for members to register incidents or concerns about the homeless encampments and other street issues in and around the Mission.

Gwen Kaplan, President of NEMBA, owner of ACE Mailing, and Townsquared member, said, “The Street Reports channel is critical because our Mission District Captain Perea and Supervisor David Campos told us that the City is unable to produce a list of reported activity for the homeless and tent encampments. We need a list of calls to 911, 311, the Homeless Outreach Team (Hot Team), EMS, and non-emergency police calls.”

Street Reports “gives us a platform to say what is happening in the neighborhood, to have data when the police ask if we have anything to back up what we’re saying,” explained Candace Combs, owner of In Symmetry Wellness Spa and Townsquared member. “It gives business owners a place to say ‘This is getting out of hand’.”

Local businesses are hoping that by creating a database of the problems they encounter—and the unhealthful, unsafe way homeless individuals must live—they will be able to push for better, long-term solutions to the crisis, faster than the speed of local government.

**All images are from Townsquared’s Street Reports feed.

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