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Despite Reports of Dispersal, Homeless Camp Remains—For Now

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Tent dwellers say they'll simply move to nearby blocks if forced out

Conflicting accounts emerged yesterday about the fate of the homeless encampment on Division Street, with the San Francisco Chronicle reporting that the city had issued 72 hours notice to campers to disperse, saying that the months-old gathering spot beneath the freeway had become a health hazard.

Then, SF Weekly reported that the city had jumped the gun and moved in to remove the campers mere hours after giving notice. But later that night, NBC Bay Area was out interviewing homeless people still firmly entrenched in the same spots.

A 10 p.m. visit to the stretch of 13th Street beneath the overpass found more than 60 tents still pitched there. Despite the near constant media visits in recent weeks, tent residents were eager to talk, approaching to offer unsolicited interviews. They reported that police had removed some of their neighbors earlier in the day, but large clusters of tents still remain, at least for now.

It also looks as if many tent owners are making good on vows made earlier in the media (and repeated to us last night) that they’ll simply move to a nearby street if forced to leave the freeway area. Nearly 40 tents were nestled on San Bruno Avenue, with half a dozen more spotted on De Haro Street, and 15 on Potrero Avenue.

A 33-year-old homeless woman named Kentucky says that tent residents on Potrero haven’t been issued the 72 hour notice (none of the DPW handbills were visible nearby), and she wasn’t even aware that notice had been given elsewhere. "The last time they gave us trouble over here was about a week ago. It’s been quiet since then," she said. What will she do if the city tries to move her? "I’ll tell them what’s what," she says.

Peter Qualls, a 44-year-old man who has been homeless in San Francisco since 2003, says he won’t leave either. "I spent 27 years in and out of jails. I’m not going into a shelter," he says. Qualls says shelters make him paranoid and afraid of harassment. Rolling up his sleeves, he showed marks he claimed were lice bites, the result of bunking too closely with other homeless. "This is what happens when I sleep next to one guy. I‘m not sleeping next to 100," he explains.

Gary Parkinson, a 55-year-old San Francisco man living largely on the street since 2000, says that the city has found interim housing for him, but he points out that the waiting list for such assistance is long and the selection process opaque to many. Cheap motels in neighborhoods with large homeless populations have raised rates in recent years, according to Parkinson, and even those tent residents with some income can rarely afford shelter on their own.

Division Street is an attractive camping site because there are fewer residences and businesses nearby than in almost any other corridor in hyper-dense San Francisco, and because the overpasses provide some degree of shelter. Many of the tents are simply tarp shanties or lean-tos that use part of the freeway structure for support. Parkinson says the campers feel relatively safe there, but predicts that many holdouts will prefer moving to less appealing areas than to accepting the city’s offers of aid.