San Francisco ‘Cleaned Up’ Streets Forward of APEC. How?

At a White House press conference on Monday, a reporter raised her hand and asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan a question about the APEC summit being held in San Francisco this week, where President Joe Biden will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and a host of other world leaders.

“San Francisco has cleaned up their streets ahead of President Biden and President Xi’s meeting,” the reporter said. “They’ve moved homeless to other parts of the city, cleared tent cities and trash off the street. Is the president embarrassed that an American city needs to go through a total makeover to be presentable for his out-of-town guests?”

Sullivan deflected the question, but as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering swings into full gear, San Franciscans themselves are noting a timely improvement in the condition of the city’s streets—and wondering how it was accomplished and whether it will last once the summit ends Friday.  

RELATED: San Francisco Cleaned Up for APEC: See Before and After Photos

In particular, there has been a noticeable reduction in the number of tents and drug activity along Van Ness Avenue, United Nations Plaza and the area around the Speaker Nancy Pelosi Federal Building, which has long been the epicenter of the city’s drug crisis. 

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A large group of people congregate along Mission and Seventh streets, adjacent to the Speaker Nancy Pelosi Federal Building, on May 23, left, and the same location, where a chain-link fence has been installed and the area cleared of people, is pictured on Monday. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard; Justin Katigbak/The Standard

“Some of the spots have been out there for 20 to 30 years, and they’re just not there,” said local activist and nonprofit founder Del Seymour. “They’re coming out doing all of this only for APEC. … I’ve got to be fair and give the city a chance to see if we can continue this.”

Shelter Beds Added, but No Change to Regular Pace of Encampment Clearing 

The U.S. Secret Service is restricting access to a 12-square-block radius in the South of Market neighborhood around the Moscone Center, the main venue for the event, and the California Highway Patrol and several other Bay Area counties are deploying over 1,000 additional law enforcement officers to the city to bolster security. 

The city opened 30 beds at its annual winter shelter facility in South of Market on Friday and is “inflating” many of its existing shelter facilities to accommodate roughly 300 more people. It’s unclear when all of the additional beds will become available. 

San Francisco has roughly 7,750 homeless people, according to the most recent point-in-time count, with 56% unsheltered. A waitlist for shelter beds was 487 people long on Monday as the city has struggled to connect with applicants by the time a bed becomes available.

Dre Blake, second to right, and Darrell Sharef, far right, stand by as a Department of Public Works employee washes the sidewalk on Van Ness Avenue. Blake told The Standard he’s on a waitlist for housing but prefers living on the streets over shelter because of past negative experiences at shelters. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

The city’s homeless shelters saw a slight uptick in occupancy as of Monday afternoon—reaching 92% capacity after months of hovering at 90%.

Representatives from the city’s homelessness department denied they added shelter beds because of APEC. However, advocates for homeless people were quick to note the beds came online “just in time” for the city’s moment in the global spotlight. 

Though the addition of shelter beds is recent, the city has been stepping up arrests for drug dealing and other offenses for months. 

Over the summer, the San Francisco Police Department received reinforcements from the California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard to tackle drug-related issues, and the daily population of the city’s jails rose to over 1,100 people for the first time since before the pandemic. The rise in detainees forced the sheriff to reopen a disused facility to accommodate the influx. 

In the weeks leading up to APEC, records show the city maintained its regular pace of clearing two encampments per day, Monday through Friday. However, emails between San Francisco officials show the city made a concerted effort to address homeless encampments in particular areas before APEC. 

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A tent, personal belongings and people are clustered outside the Asian Art Museum near United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on May 11, left, and the same location is seen without people on Monday. | Jason Henry for The Standard; Justin Katigbak/The Standard

In an email dated Sept. 25, Department of Emergency Management Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll requested a 24/7 homeless shelter facility in time for the conference. Marion Sanders, chief deputy director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, responded to Carroll by promising to have a “clear plan of action” for the event.

In another email dated Oct. 23, a manager for the Healthy Streets Operations Center recommended delaying clearing two encampments in the Tenderloin until the week before APEC.

“One thought I have is to put in Leavenworth … then Eddy and Mason on Wednesday, but thinking it may be better to do this the week before APEC,” the manager said in the email.

Van Ness Avenue a Focus of Concern

Other emails show city officials expressed particular concern about encampments along Van Ness Avenue, which runs behind City Hall—a venue for multiple APEC-related gatherings, including a fancy party thrown by Mayor London Breed and East West Bank Chairman Dominic Ng on Sunday. City Hall will host another party for journalists covering APEC on Thursday.

Van Ness was listed as one of six priority areas to address before the conference, according to an email first obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle from the superintendent of Street Environmental Services, Christopher McDaniels. The department told the publication the areas were considered priorities regardless of the event.

Members of the Board of Supervisors have been pushing for the city to act before APEC.

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A police vehicle is parked next to a homeless encampment on a sidewalk along Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on Sept. 26, left, and the same location has planter boxes installed to discourage encampments on Monday, right. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard; Justin Katigbak/The Standard

“We understand the importance of presenting our city in the best possible light for international delegates,” a legislative aide to Supervisor Catherine Stefani wrote in an email to a constituent on Oct. 3. “Ahead of the event, our office has been actively advocating for improved conditions along Van Ness Avenue.”

City workers cleared two encampments on Van Ness the week before the conference. But it was not their first trip to the street: City workers visited the street 23 times to clear encampments over a six-month span starting in April, according to the Department of Emergency Management. 

In October, the San Francisco Police Department authorized its officers to enforce anti-camping laws in response to new guidance from the City Attorney’s Office, which is engaged in a high-stakes lawsuit over the city’s encampment clearings. 

A city employee looks at the camera as he loads unhoused people's items into a truck.A Department of Public Works employee stands beside a truck filled with the belongings of unhoused people. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

During its most recent visit on Tuesday, the city at least temporarily swayed people from rebuilding their encampments on Van Ness. 

Darrell Sharef, a 34-year-old homeless man, said he was going to try to “hustle” enough money to afford a hotel room after the city disbanded his encampment. 

“This is the everyday lifestyle,” he said. 

Another man named Dre Blake said he turned down the city’s offer of shelter because he previously had negative experiences at the facilities.

“It’s just like the streets in there,” Blake said. “Nothing really changes. It’s not like I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore.” 

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A group of people sit on the ground at Mission at Seventh streets in San Francisco on May 16, left, and two pedestrians pass the same location cleared of loitering people as seen on Monday. | Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Justin Katigbak/The Standard

As of Monday, the encampments had not returned. Daniel Rivera, another homeless man, said the people living along Van Ness had scattered across the city. He said the city told him and other homeless people to “clean up” due to APEC.

“It’s like getting dressed up for a party,” Rivera said. 

Many weren’t pleased the city asked them to move. For some, past experiences with the city, particularly during encampment clearings, have left them distrustful of government services.

“This is a category five hurricane hitting your spot, and you’re left with nothing,” said Nobel Mitchell, an unhoused man.

A man drags a cooler as city workers look on. A trash truck filled with the belongings of unhoused people is in the background.Nobel Mitchell salvages his belongings as San Francisco city workers conduct an encampment clearing. Mitchell, who is unhoused, said he’s been set back by previous encampment clearings, during which city workers destroyed his property. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

Some advocates for the homeless expressed concern about the well-being of unhoused people who may have been displaced due to the APEC event. 

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, noted the issues homeless people face don’t disappear even if those people have been moved out of the public’s line of sight. 

“There’s a lot of money coming into this conference, and none of that is being set aside for unhoused people who are being displaced,” Friedenbach said. “They’re just moving people around.”

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