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As San Francisco reawakens, a car parking zone encampment turns into a battleground

At 9 a.m. on Monday, skid steer loaders and dump trucks were parked in front of the abandoned state parking lot under Highway 101 in Soma. A few tired residents, who lived there in tents, trucks, and a half-built tiny house, dragged their belongings onto a nearby sidewalk as social workers and California Highway Patrol made their final rounds.

Traffic thundered above us when San Francisco woke up after a year in a pandemic-induced limbo. Slowly the tents, tarpaulins and other makeshift structures fell down.

“You’re acting like this is a dictatorship,” said Ashante Jones, a 44-year-old Oakland native who has lived on the Merlin Street property for six months. “Where are the people going to?”

Until the coronavirus crippled daily life, the property was one of many in the Bay Area that served a mix of daily commuters and people in vehicles, some for up to five years. But on Monday, after the operator that the state leased the property to cease business and more people moved in during the pandemic, officials came down to evacuate the camp despite opposition from remaining residents and homeless lawyers.

For those who were still there when the heavy equipment arrived, the Merlin Street lot symbolized everything wrong with the city’s reliance on short-term pavements like sanctioned warehouses and motel rooms, while thousands still lack stable housing Were available. But for city officials and social workers who said they had spent the past six weeks pushing residents to accept alternative housing, it was a sign of progress.

“This is one of the last major camps in the city,” said Jeff Kositsky, director of the Healthy Streets Operation Center of Mayor London Breeds, a coordinated group of city officials tasked with responding to homeless camps. “It’s not perfect, but we’re doing our best to provide services to everyone.”

By late Monday morning, Kositsky said 10 of the property’s few dozen residents had accepted offers from the city to switch to either sanctioned parking spaces for “safe sleeping” or temporary hotel rooms. Others lingered in front of a chain link fence with their packed clothes, instruments and tools. Those who were still inside rushed to dismantle tents, pack up whatever was left, and figure out what to do with large items.

Similar scenes have often played out in San Francisco and the surrounding cities, where in recent years a housing affordability crisis has collided with chronic homelessness and strong opposition to the construction of new shelters. However, much is at stake right now. Homeless advocates are pursuing multiple camp sweep lawsuits and Governor Gavin Newsom proposed $ 12 billion last week to target the state’s 160,000+ homeless.

While politicians debate how much money to spend and where to spend it, outsiders indicate that they still often have difficulty accessing basic services. You feel forgotten in a familiar alternation between shelters, camps and other precarious makeshift homes.

“People don’t just disappear,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “You call them resolutions, but they’re sweeps.”

The showdown on Merlin Street escalated last week when Cutler and other activists took to social media to urge the public to require Caltrans to “stop the eviction.” A verified Twitter account for the transport company’s Bay Area office replied last week that the warehouse poses a fire hazard to the freeway and that Caltrans has been working with the city to provide “housing options” to residents.

“Caltrans carries out inventory cleanups when there are immediate safety concerns or a threat to critical infrastructure,” the agency said in a statement on Monday. “We continue to work with the city and the service providers to bring people into safer situations.”

It was around 7 a.m. on Monday when the first city and public work teams began filtering into the 41,000-square-foot fenced-in property previously operated under the name Delta Parking Management LLC. Although officials said camp residents usually zipped their hands to avoid clashes with police, those on Merlin Street were allowed to continue packing.

Greg Smith couldn’t bear to see it all, so he sat down the block in his blue van while social workers tried to convince him to move into a hotel room. Smith still has the colorful monthly parking passes, which he bought for about $ 400 a month for the past five years, to rent two parking spaces on the property.

“If they got new owners, I would stay,” said Smith, who has lived in San Francisco since 1973 and spent many years moving around various lots. “It’s my place, you know?”

Kositsky said the rate of campers accepting housing services has fallen from around 85% to 30% in recent months. Activists and some local residents say the problem is more with the type of services offered. Sleeping safely can seem like another camp with more rules. During the pandemic, the shelters will operate with reduced capacity. And it can still take months to find a landlord willing to accept a permanent housing voucher.

Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition for Homelessness, is campaigning, among other things, for the city to convert 1,000 motel rooms into studio apartments, with state and federal economic funds coming up. San Francisco’s own funding from the 2018 homeless tax measure, Proposal C, should provide additional housing – if and when city officials push more concrete plans.

“We have the money. We have the property, ”said Friedenbach. “We need the political will.”

Meanwhile, Merlin Street neighbors Dominic Russo and Lakrisha Harper have been scrambling Monday morning to figure out where to go before implementing their own longer-term plans.

Russo, a former music teacher from San Francisco, desperately chose a tow truck to move the tiny house he’d built in the front corner of the Merlin Street property. Harper and her 13-year-old boyfriend were trying to track down a missing iPhone while debating where to go because the studio apartment she wants to rent with a voucher wasn’t ready.

“It’s hectic and frustrating and exhausting,” said Harper, who grew up in the Sunnydale neighborhood. “It makes you say, ‘I’m giving up.'”

From San Francisco to Santa Cruz, cities across northern California are discussing how to deal with warehouses like the one on Merlin Street when public spaces reopen. Meanwhile, lawsuits are flying against cities that activists claim did not offer alternative protection, as a landmark 2018 court ruling mandated, and against Caltrans for destroying the belongings of East Bay residents in recent years.

Newsom also allocated $ 1.5 billion to its homeless budget to clean up public spaces and $ 50 million to cities to get people out of camps. The governor’s office declined to answer specific questions from The Chronicle about whether its instructions to Caltrans and local authorities regarding warehouse evictions have changed since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention served governments across the board last year Land have advised leaving homeless people where they are if no alternative is available.

Meanwhile, proponents fear cities will continue to focus on the symptoms of the homelessness crisis rather than the causes.

“The eviction process is more focused on removing tents,” said Francisco Herrera, chair of the Latino Task Force Street Needs Assessment Committee. “They just create a carousel effect.”

Late Monday morning, Russo’s tiny house was loaded onto a tow truck to try one of the last lots he’d imagined. Stragglers kept filling suitcases around the polluted parking lot, and Jones still wasn’t sure where to go.

“I’m really panicking now,” he said. “I just got a good poker face.”

The bright yellow loader started at around 1 p.m. It fell hard on a blue-gray tent that had already left the owner.

Lauren Hepler is an employee of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: lauren.hepler@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LAHepler

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