Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wait & See

A month ago, San Francisco Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius went to look for homeless encampments in Golden Gate Park. When he found them, and stacks of hypodermic needles nearby, the response was both vociferous and overwhelming.

Stung by the criticism and outrage from the public, Mayor Gavin Newsom has thrown a task force at the problem. Each morning for the past month, a caravan of San Francisco police, Department of Public Works, Rec and Park, Department of Public Health and outreach workers have hit the park at 4 a.m.

Monday, Nevius went back to see what had been cleaned up, what hadn't changed and what new problems had cropped up. There were fewer needles and campers in the obvious spots. But it still wasn't difficult to find them. A three-hour visit Monday morning turned up several encampments -- including two dug-in campsites on a hill no more than 100 feet from the main office of the Recreation and Park Department -- and used hypodermic needles at three separate locations.

As impressive as the regular morning sweep is, how long will it continue? Police officers already are complaining that, as Sgt. Frank Lee of the Richmond Station says: "it draws a lot of resources away from other police problems.''

"Every time something in the paper makes this administration look bad, they throw a bunch of money at it and hope for the best.'' - Sgt. John Lewis of Park Station
At the mayor's office, they insist that this is no flash in the pan.

The mayor's spokesman Nathan Ballard says, "Those 4 a.m. sweeps will go on indefinitely. What is being implemented is what we view as a permanent solution.''

Nevius says, he'll believe it when he sees it. And he fully intends to keep an eye on it, adding as much work as has gone into this effort in the last 30 days, we are far from saying that it is safe for parents to let their kids run along the dirt trails that wind into the wooded areas off the main roads.

Take Chicken Hill, a favorite illegal campground above the tennis courts. When he climbed up to Chicken Hill in July, we encountered an established encampment with a smoking campfire, chairs, tarps, and eight to 10 residents.

At 7:45 Monday morning, Chicken Hill was a showpiece for the "new'' Golden Gate Park. The area, clearly a priority for the crews, had been raked and cleaned up and didn't have a single camper. Unfortunately, when he continued up the trail a ways, he stumbled over another two camps.

We also found newly inhabited spots. Reader Michael Rhoase, who walks his dog in the park daily, alerted the Chronicle to the redwood grove east of the Rose Garden. A short trip down a dirt hill takes you into a lovely glade, shadowed by the towering redwoods.

But, as one of the city parks department gardeners warned, this is "no-man's-land.'' We found needles there, camping spots and a piece of cardboard with the words, "Don't take this! Its (sic) my bed, bitch!''

Rhoase says he finds needles almost every day and also has come across mail stolen from homes in the Avenues.

"At first the situation was dramatically improved. In the last week, however, I'm sad to say that things are returning to the way they were before.''
That's the persistent refrain from nearly everyone who loves the park -- things might have improved, but will it last?

Michael Williams has lived a few blocks from the Conservatory of Flowers for nine years. He and his wife have volunteered in cleanups, have donated to fundraisers and walk in the park daily.

"We walk all parts of the park, and we still see the homeless camps. I'm just waiting to see what happens.''
But just to be clear, the mayor shouldn't confuse "wait and see'' with any suggestion that this is an issue that is going to die out.

"This has been written about before,'' says Sgt. Lee at the Richmond Station, a lifelong San Franciscan. "But I don't think I have ever seen this kind of response. People saw this park and said they couldn't believe that it had been let deteriorate like this. They reached a breaking point.''

In the last month, there were pages of comments on the columns on SFGate.com and hundreds of e-mails. The sense of frustration was obvious.

"I don't know what the answer is,'' said Laura Foulke, who walks her dog, Chico, in the park twice a day. "But there has got to be one. It seems to me that other cities handle it. Why can't we?''

SFGate: After A Month, Park's A little Less Of A Mess - Major Homeless Campsites Cleared, But Some Have Just Shifted Position by C.W. Nevius, San Francisco Chronicle

SFGate: City Says 167 Homeless Camps Removed From S.F.'s Golden Gate Park by Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer

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