The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

In defence of America's informal settlements: the campers of San Francisco

We tend to believe that wealthy countries like the United States don't have informal settlements. Not only is this false, but it allows western governments to further marginalise an already misunderstood community. In the first of three articles on America's informal residents, Martha Bridegam meets two residents of one such harassed community in San Francisco.

Martha Bridegam

Martha Bridegam

Cities: San Francisco-Oakland

Topics: Housing, Property, rights and evictions, Homelessness, Informal settlements

In August this year, city and state authorities in San Francisco raided a camp of makeshift homes under a freeway ramp and beside a commuter rail yard near the downtown area, destroying some residents' property and evicting them from the site.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Kevin Fagan described the camp this way: 'a sprawling mini-city of tents, suitcases and makeshift Conestoga wagon-style trailers, and a 50-strong homeless population that had been there for years. It was the biggest street camp in San Francisco.' One resident has denied it was so large, but it was certainly substantial for a town that discourages group camps.

Residents were given 72 hours' notice to vacate but some were offered and accepted temporary city-rented hotel rooms. The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness (SFCOH), an activist group largely staffed by precariously housed volunteers, reported the eviction proceeded relatively respectfully but later posted complaints about promised rooms that didn't 'pan out'.

Respectfully or not, campers who didn't leave were ordered out. Some of their property was taken to maintenance yards for later claiming; some was destroyed, in part by workers wearing paper suits and masks. After the raid the camp re-formed, but smaller and under heavier weekly harassment. From past experience as a volunteer advocate for informal campers (in part through SFCOH) I expect the size of the camp may be ratcheted down over time.

San Francisco is dotted with small clusters of makeshift homes, especially under elevated freeways and in the remaining warehouse districts. The housing may be tents, shelters built around shopping carts, or vehicles, especially older recreational vehicles ('RVs', American English for 'caravans'). Police and public works staff regularly disperse these unauthorised communities and destroy portions of their property as waste. The campers regroup. The cycle repeats.

I think our officials justify clearances of camps, and conventionally housed neighbours accept them, out of civic perfectionism. They presume informal housing can't really be necessary, not in the prosperous United States. Taking comfort from the existence of government and NGO services for homeless people, they assume these services can meet all homeless people's needs — hence that informal housing is a choice made by people who refuse to be helped.

They are proven wrong by the quiet ubiquity of makeshift housing in San Francisco and across the United States. When thousands of Americans make the same housing decision, and stick with it through cold nights and police harassment, they can't all be suffering defects of character or logic. For them, informal housing must be the best bad deal available.

There are indeed chances to stay indoors. San Francisco's aid program for indigent childless adults provides accommodation for up to 27 or sometimes 33 months, though many initial placements are in shelters rather than hotels. The program typically uses old-style downtown residential hotels built during San Francisco's post-1906 earthquake recovery. Solid shelter despite the risk of crime, noise and bugs. To keep a hotel or shelter placement, though, residents must meet paperwork requirements, follow rules on matters such as dogs, clutter and visitors, and, in most cases, pursue either paid employment or federal disability benefits.

People easily fail or bolt out of that system. Other forms of subsidised housing have long waiting lists. The city's nightly shelters, though disliked, turn people away regularly. That leaves informal housing.

Two residents of San Francisco

The Chronicle spoke of conventionally housed people as 'residents' but of informally housed people as 'homeless'. That phrasing reflects an established asymmetry: campers may see conventionally housed people as neighbours, but property owners and neighbourhood associations tend to discuss campers as inarticulate elements of a category, 'the homeless'.

When I visited the camp site in October the man who welcomed me was a lifelong San Francisco native. He introduced himself as Sticks ('I shoot pool'). Now 56 years old, he said he had lived in the camp much of the past seven years. I asked him what people called it. He said, 'we call it home.'

Highway workers had fenced off only one small camping area. Tents and shelters had returned, though fewer than in August. (Later I met more residents: some seasoned campers, some recently homeless.)

Sticks found the August eviction less worrying than the new severity of weekly sweeps by the state highway agency, Caltrans. One such raid had destroyed his own property. 'They took all my clothes and everything and just put it in that big-ass truck that crushes everything.' He meant a garbage compactor truck, the kind that breaks and compresses property and takes it to the landfill, beyond recovery.

City and Caltrans policies require property of value that is not abandoned to be stored for later claiming — rules reinforced this September by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles. But Sticks said, 'they don't give us no option. Whatever they take, whether it's personal or what, it's going to the garbage.'

For water and restrooms he said the camp relied on a public park nearby. It has an outdoor drinking fountain and an indoor restroom that closes overnight. Sticks said an unguarded tap nearer the camp had been shut off. Had residents asked for portable toilets or other amenities? He said, 'we've talked to them about a whole lot of things,' mainly through an ex-schoolteacher spokesman, but they claimed to be 'having too many complaints.'

It's a circular problem: there will always be complaints about crime and sanitation at an informal community if authorities approach these problems not as governance and civil engineering challenges common to every human settlement but as proof that the camp must be removed.

Sticks believed the harsher weekly sweeps were reactions to a series of maliciously set fires that followed the August eviction. Sticks and his friend Rashan, who joined us mid-conversation, said the fire-starter was not part of the camp: he was a resident's bitter ex-boyfriend.

Rather than discuss guarding the community from further attack, Bevan Dufty, lead official on homelessness in the office of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, responded to the worst of the fires by telling the Chronicle, 'an incident like this can make people more accepting of services, and it also sets off bells that this is not a safe place to live.'

Rationalising the eviction

Public rhetoric surrounding the eviction reflected support from a liberal-conservative consensus. Expressions of solidarity on the left and objections from the Coalition on Homelessness represented minority views.

Bevan Dufty is a popular liberal figure, formerly an elected member of the Board of Supervisors (similar to local council). Speaking to the Chronicle before the eviction, he portrayed the freeway camp as dangerous to its occupants and said city employees were reaching out to provide appropriate services and housing instead. He told the paper, 'we're going to say, "this change is coming and you need to think about what you want to do and can we help you figure that out." The worst that could happen would be for 50 people to be kicked out onto the streets.'

A representative of the less liberal California Highway Patrol interviewed by a local television station spoke more bluntly: 'mainly, it's to remove garbage, excrement, rats, that kind of thing.' A Caltrans spokesman told the Chronicle of plans to bar returners with a stronger fence. His comments were consistent with other Caltrans statements that portray 'encampments' as a problem of  trash removal. (Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said the commuter rail system does not own or police the freeway camp area but does remove campers from its own land, offering services when it does.)

Right-wing anti-homeless messages bloomed in the Chronicle's online comments. One commenter used the rhetoric of addiction recovery, which holds the addict responsible for self-improvement: 'Enabling the homeless lifestyle is not compassion. When you make it comfortable for people to be homeless, they will stay homeless. The cops need to be tearing out these homeless encampments as soon as they crop up. The only money we should be spending toward the homeless issue are [sic] in drug rehabilitation and psychological services. That way the homeless have two options: Get treatment or move.'

Learning from the developing world

Although unauthorised settlements have legitimacy problems everywhere, it's inspiring to consider that in some parts of the developing world, informally housed people count as 'residents'.

Rashan responded warmly when I suggested the freeway camp might elsewhere be understood and respected as a town. He mentioned people he had seen invoking squatters' rights during his childhood in Jamaica. 'They would just plant a little food and put up a little shanty or whatever they could use — bamboo or wood or whatever they find … not just thrown together, I mean, well-knit, you know, I mean, well done … some people just have to live like that, you know? And a lot of them had kids and stuff and their children were always the brightest in school, just, I mean, incredible, you know?'

In San Francisco I do think formally and informally housed people may yet learn to negotiate with each other as neighbours — not beloved neighbours, just neighbours who admit to sharing the same plane of existence.

As I'll discuss next, hard times in the United States are drawing attention to informal housing. Some punitive raids and legislation have followed, but there's also a current of sympathy, especially for newly homeless people living in their cars. With that, I think, comes hope for improvement.

is a lawyer and writer in San Francisco with a history of volunteer advocacy for informally housed city residents. She tweets @mbridegam.

This is the first of three articles by on homelessness and informal settlements in the US. Read the second article on the criminalisation of both here, and the third article on the settlements demonstrating the dignity of informal housing here.