For weeks, a tent city for homeless people flourished in the middle of San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza as city officials withstood mounting criticism for the highly visible eyesore while trying to find a humane solution to the problem.
On Thursday, Mayor Art Agnos finally acted. He ordered police to clear the area of its shabby tents and wooden structures. But the mayor, in holding to a pledge not to force out the homeless until alternative housing could be found, ordered the police not to roust the encampment's residents. They could stay.
However, the mayor's action appeased neither the homeless, who say they want to stay where they are with the camp intact, nor critics, who say the homeless people should be permanently removed from what has been nicknamed "Camp Agnos."
In the shadow of City Hall, the park for years has served as a favorite place to sleep for dozens of the city's homeless. But this summer was different. More people and, conspicuously, more belongings and shelters were moved into each of the park's four corners.
Heaps of trash, furniture and clothing sprang up under the park's olive tree groves, accompanied by overflowing shopping carts. The smell of human waste permeated the air. Camp residents hung out during the day on tattered couches and chairs, sometimes sipping beer and listening to music from boom boxes.
Agnos, who pledged during his campaign 18 months ago to find a long-term solution to the problem rather than build more shelters, maintained that he would not follow the example of former Mayor Dianne Feinstein and roust people from the park. Even if he did, there is no place for them to go. The city has 2,400 available spaces in hotels and other shelters for the city's estimated 6,000 homeless people.
And many of the park's homeless said they preferred sleeping under the stars to bedding down in roach- and rat-infested buildings populated with crack dealers. "It's better here outside than in a hotel," said Tito Bravo, a Civic Center Plaza resident for five months. "They're dirty."
Lacking both a place to house the Civic Center homeless and a long-term plan of action, Agnos faced a barrage of angry letters from citizens as well as complaints from the Tourist and Convention Bureau that the camp was endangering business. Critical media comments were made.
"That area's being destroyed right now," said KGO talk radio show host Ron Owen, who frequently receives complaints about the park on his morning show. He added that people walking through the park are "panhandled, intimidated and threatened."
Early in July, the mayor ordered the residents to remove tents and personal belongings by the middle of the month but did not instruct police to enforce the order. In response, park denizens presented a list of demands to Agnos, requesting showers and permanent storage space. They also cleaned up the park in hopes that Agnos would let the tent city remain.
"There's nothing that's not picturesque about a tent," Civic Center resident Wayne Justman said. But some of the park residents said those negotiating efforts were hampered in the last two weeks by three incidents instigated in part by Food Not Bombs and capped by a mass food-serving demonstration Wednesday evening that turned into a flag-burning ceremony and led to 22 arrests. The organization, which has been providing free food to park residents for about three weeks, was ordered shut down last Friday after the state Department of Health Services found it in violation of several codes. The group filed a $50-million lawsuit Monday against that order.
Agnos maintained that Food Not Bombs was unrelated to Thursday's sunrise cleanup. "The rules have been very clear," Agnos said. "We're not rousting people until we have a decent alternative, but we cannot have tents."
Criticism was immediate. "I'm glad the mayor's beginning to enforce the law, but I hope he starts enforcing the law against sleeping in a public park," city Supervisor Bill Maher said. "They don't have the right to live in the park and take it away from everybody else."
Supervisor Nancy Walker said she was disappointed that the mayor was not more patient. "I'm just real sad this city had to go in and do what it did," said Walker, who was working with the Civic Center residents.
Walker said 500 new rooms will be made available to residents through a local housing clinic, and Agnos has earmarked $1.5 million for a 24-hour facility that would provide emergency shelter for the homeless, along with shower and storage facilities and counseling services. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded $6 million to the city for transitional shelters. But none of this help is coming soon, nor is it of a scale to accommodate the entire homeless population.
In the meantime, the Civic Center campers on Thursday were forced to discard personal possessions or carry them in shopping carts to a storage facility provided by the city. Many sat on park benches and watched as the police hosed down their former homes. While the city has offered to help camp residents find temporary shelter through the hotel system, most said they did not know what their immediate plans would be.