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Workers Begin Clearing San Francisco Homeless Encampment Despite 72-Hour Notice

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Residents of a large homeless encampment along Division Street in San Francisco were given 72-hours notice to relocate Tuesday, but many people said they were being forced to move immediately.

San Francisco has been trying to encourage the homeless to use the new shelter on Pier 80, but many campers have refused to budge.

This stretch of Division Street has been cluttered with dozens of tents for weeks.

Though they still have until the Friday deadline to relocate, Rico, Keri and several dozen other residents of South of Market's tent cities were being told to move Tuesday.

"The cop told us to move. And we said, 'Where are we supposed to go?'" explained Rico. "Basically, the cop told us if we don't move, we're going to jail."

The city moved 25 of them into the big warehouse homeless shelter that opened two weeks ago at Pier 80.

"They actually forced us," said homeless resident JoJo. "I don't know if it's ok, but it was very rude."

Even though the tents have been up since well before Super Bowl 50 and tent cities have been blossoming like never before seen in the city, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's administration has not taken action until now.

"They have 72 hours to get their stuff and go and find an alternative," said Human Services Director Trent Rhorer.

Police, CHP and Public Works swooped in Tuesday afternoon to start forcing the tent city residents to relocate.

On Facebook, Coalition on Homelessness organizer Kelley Cutler posted video of what she described as police and Public Works employees "throwing people's belongings and tents" into dump trucks.

They are currently doing major sweeps on Division. Throwing people's belongings and tents in the dump truck. Told to "move along" but not told to where... not even pier 80. Reports of some being arrested and taken to jail.

Posted by Kelley Cutler on Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"I think the conditions of the encampments are not to be tolerated," said Mayor Lee. "The quicker we can get people in [designated shelters], the better."

Public health has been an issue for weeks, but Tuesday the Lee administration apparently decided it had had enough.

"People who have to walk through here," said Rachel Gordon of SF Public Works. "People with businesses are saying, 'Enough is enough.' And we're hearing that."

Officials with the Department of Public Health planned to post 72-hour notices to vacate Division between 11th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, public health director Barbara Garcia said.

But the Department of Public Works, charged with clearing encampments, has steadily been clearing campers for months, public works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said Tuesday.

"It is a public health nuisance out there, there's needles, feces, rotting garbage, it's not conducive to a dense urban environment where there are people living in the area, people working in the area and people walking down the street," Gordon said.

Declaring the entire area as a public health nuisance gives city workers another tool in enforcement, Gordon said, in addition to existing laws against pitching tents on city streets and blocking sidewalks.

The enforcement action is similar to what occurred over four years ago when city crews cleared Occupy SF from Justin Herman Plaza. That area was declared a public health nuisance and cleared by public works crews, with police standing by for security in case anyone tried to interfere.

Public works crews clearing campsites typically give people a chance to collect their belongings before confiscating them, but anyone who has their equipment confiscated can pick them up at the public works operations yard within 90 days, Gordon said.

Gordon said public works crews have been removing encampments this way for months, with a "hot spot crew" rolling out each morning, rotating through different camping areas in the Mission, Bayview and Potrero areas and cleaning up encampments. Even after an area is cleared, people may return there a few weeks later, so crews need to keep coming back to clear them again, she said.

As of Tuesday, there are about 25 spots available at Pier 80, but far more people currently live in these tent cities.

"I'm going to go across the street, and then come right back," said one homeless man. "That's what I'm gonna do."

He may face the same problem. More tent take downs are expected in the next three days.

"We're going to encourage people to get out of that situation and persuade them," said Lee. "And persuasion generally means a back-up by people who will say, 'You can't be here.'"

The tear down of the tents is also impacting at least one small business along Division Street. One man living in a tent told KPIX 5 he has a steady income from renting five other tents to people who live in the encampment.

TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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