San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 2020
By Phil Matier
They consider themselves the prisoners of Larch Street — residents and building owners whose lives have been upended by the tent dwellers who, with the blessing of the city, have overtaken the block-long street near Opera Plaza.
“It’s the Wild West. You hear screams in the night and the sound of power tools cutting through bike locks all day,” said Mason Feldman, whose apartment abuts the alley. Feldman, who has lived on the block for five years, said the alley has long been a magnet for homeless people and petty drug dealers, but it’s never as bad as it is now.
“Sometimes there were tents. Sometimes drug activity,” Feldman said. “But it was people passing through. People minding their own business. It’s gone to a whole new level of drugs and organized petty crime. You can see them bringing in the stolen bikes.”
The tents spill out onto the one-way street, making it nearly impossible to get a car safely in or out of the adjacent apartment buildings’ garages.
It’s especially hard for the elderly.
“I have scoliosis and I have to drive to grocery shop and go to the doctor. But that means driving through the tents,” said June, a 72-year-old resident who asked not to have her last name published because she felt vulnerable to reprisals. The Chronicle granted her request in accordance with its anonymous sources policy.
“I feel like I’m being held hostage,” June said.
As with many other tent encampments, the city’s response has been to set up portable toilets and send in Homeless Outreach Teams to offer services and to try and keep the tents at a safe distance from one another during the coronavirus outbreak.
The city’s efforts, however, have fallen flat with the owners of three apartment buildings that border the encampments.
Curtis Dowling is an attorney who represents Mike O’Neill and Sons, which owns two of the apartment buildings containing 174 rental units, and the Giosso Children’s Trust, which owns the third building with 31 rental units and one storefront.
“I will be filing suit this week in federal court, seeking an injunction that the encampment be removed,” Dowling said.
He’s already complained to the city about the situation.
“The tenants in my clients’ properties feel like prisoners in their own homes,” Dowling wrote in a May 25 letter to Mayor London Breed. “It has gotten so bad that tenants are now vacating my clients’ buildings and specifically citing the encampments in the alley the reason.”
Icju Hwang is one of the tenants moving out.
“Early in the morning they play music loud,” Hwang said. “They fight and they yell. You can’t sleep. They block the way in and out.”
The expected lawsuit follows a similar legal move by Tenderloin residents, businesses and UC Hastings College of the Law, who filed suit in May. Within weeks, that suit was settled out of court, with the city promising to remove the hundreds of tents that had overtaken the neighborhood.
Since the settlement encampments along Turk and Hyde streets, Eddy and Hyde streets, and McAllister and Larkin streets have come down, with about 100 people moved either to fenced “safe sleeping sites” or into hotels.
Crowd barricades have been set up along the sidewalks where the tents had been.
Since the coronavirus shutdown — and the subsequent thinning out of people in the city’s shelter system for physical distancing purposes — tents have spread into the Castro, the Haight, Cole Valley and along Octavia Boulevard in Hayes Valley. They’re even on the sidewalk near the new Park Tower high-rise in the Transbay District. Facebook is the building’s major tenant.
Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes Larch Street, said the situation there was “unacceptable.”
Preston, who has made donations in the past to help the homeless acquire tents, said the city was “actively working” to get a site on the eastern edge of District Five that would take homeless people from the Octavia and Larch encampments.
Preston also took aim at Mayor Breed.
“She has failed to comply with the unanimous ordinance we passed to address the situation by ramping up the city’s use of vacant hotels,” Preston said in an email.
In response, mayoral spokesman Jeff Cretan said, “We are adding more hotel rooms every week, repopulating our shelters and popping up new safe sleeping sites like we did on Stanyan (Street) so we can move tents off our sidewalks.
“Every person we help takes an incredible amount of effort from our city workers and nonprofit partners, but they are out there every day doing the work,” Cretan said.
Meanwhile the tents keep coming and, now, so do the lawsuits.