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Proposition Q: Outlawing Tent Encampments on Sidewalks

This ordinance would make it illegal for people to pitch tents or similar shelters on city sidewalks.

This measure was placed on the ballot by Supervisors Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Katy Tang and Scott Wiener.

Tent encampments can be found in many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, including the Mission District, Potrero Hill and South of Market. Photo by Nadia Mishkin / San Francisco Public Press

Why is this on the ballot?

In their official argument, the measure’s proponents say, “Homelessness has reached crisis proportions in San Francisco. One of its worst symptoms is the tent encampments that are spreading in our neighborhoods.”

The proponents say Proposition Q will pull tent-dwellers off the streets and into housing. But in their official argument, opponents say that misses the point: The city does not offer enough temporary shelters and permanent housing for the entire homeless population, and Proposition Q does not create new housing.

San Francisco has long struggled with homelessness, but the issue has recently become especially visible. Much of the current furor was sparked in February, when a major tent encampment in the Mission District was declared a health hazard and cleared of all its inhabitants.

The event spurred a tech entrepreneur to pen an open letter to the mayor and police chief, urging them to fix the problem so that he would no longer have to “worry about being accosted” by homeless people as he walked down city streets.

And in June, local news outlets covered homelessness in unison.

But today the problems associated with homelessness appear as intractable as ever — including the question of how to regulate the tents that people pitch along sidewalks, sometimes in large groups.

It is illegal to sit or lie on city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. And though the police code does not explicitly outlaw setting up a tent on the sidewalk, it does outlaw general obstructions.

What would it do and at what cost?

Proposition Q would modify the police code to make it illegal to set up a tent or “any structure with a top or roof that can fit a person sitting or lying down” on sidewalks without a permit.

These policies would interact with those of another ballot measure: Proposition R, which would create a neighborhood crime unit charged with policing the homeless population.

If Proposition Q passes, city agencies would have to give a 24-hour notice to tent dwellers or encampments before breaking them up and seizing any unattended possessions. Those notices would have to describe where people could go to find homeless shelters, and the removals could occur only if shelter space or other housing were available at that time.

In the notice, the city staff would also give people the opportunity to use the city’s Homeward Bound Program, in which the city pays to transport people to homes where family or friends will be waiting to receive them — even out of state.

After removing the tents, the city agencies will have to leave another note describing where people can go to retrieve any confiscated items, which will have to be stored and accessible for at least 90 days.

Because the city will have wide discretion to enforce this law, it is difficult to estimate the total associated costs, City Controller Ben Rosenfield has said. If agencies chose to step up the removal of encampments, the city would have to offer shelter to anyone who was displaced, and that might carry a hefty price tag. But costs would be minimal if city agencies did not aggressively enforce the new law.

Rosenfield reported in August that there were approximately 3,500 “unsheltered homeless” in the city, but he offered no estimate of the number of people who might be affected if voters passed the measure.

Jess Montejano, Farrell’s legislative aide, who worked heavily on Proposition Q, said the measure was aimed at an estimated 300 to 500 homeless people in tent encampments, which “pose a different level of risk than an unsheltered person.”

He referred to recent reports of rapes in some encampments, along with prostitution and open-air drug dealing.

“Those levels of crime are not happening with our unsheltered population,” he said.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice released a statement denouncing the criminalization of homelessness, stating in part that “if a person literally has nowhere else to go,” enforcement of this kind of anti-camping ordinance “against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

Is there a catch?

One-night shelter stays

City staff would have to offer some type of housing before removing tents or other makeshift homes. But the mechanics of the city’s shelter system would make it unlikely that displaced people could get more than a single night in a shelter, said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Before entering a shelter, entrants must have their faces and a finger photographed — not the same as being fingerprinted — and pass a tuberculosis test, results of which typically take three days to process, she said.

After being scanned and tested, someone would be eligible for a shelter bed through two different approaches: the city’s wait list for 90-day shelter reservations; and emergency, same-day beds. The current wait list has almost 850 names on it. Friedenbach said it is generally between 800 and 1,000.

“It takes about six weeks to get into the shelter if you’re on the wait list,” Friedenbach said.

That means a displaced tent dweller would likely be offered a same-day bed, which would become available if the person who reserved it originally did not return by curfew (5 p.m.). The next day, the tent dweller would have to repeat this process.

Montejano said that if Proposition Q was passed, city staff would have to connect individuals with specific, available beds. “There’s a vacancy rate, on any given night, of 5 to 10 percent,” he said, and city staff would offer these slots to homeless people. This would be made possible by lists of vacancies update in real time. Montejano also said that some people would be eligible for longer-term supportive housing.

But this approach is not mandated by the ballot measure, which requires only that city staff post notices at the tent encampment, describing “that there is Housing or Shelter and Homeless Services available for residents of the Encampment and the phone number and address to contact in order to obtain the Housing or Shelter and Homeless Services.”

There are about 1,300 shelter beds for single adults in San Francisco, and about 200 additional beds set aside for families. A 2015 point-in-time count found more than 7,500 homeless people in the city.

Confiscated items known to disappear

While breaking up a tent or encampment, if city staff discovered contraband or items that they thought posed safety or health risks, such as spoiled food, bodily fluids or human waste, they would be empowered to discard them. If they came across what appeared to be evidence of a crime, they would be allowed to seize it.

Although this ballot measure states that confiscated items would need to be stored and made available for retrieval for three months, neither the government nor the worker who seized those items would be liable to pay for lost or damaged possessions.

But if the city’s recent practices are an indication, it is unclear whether people would actually be able to retrieve their confiscated possessions. In June, Mission Local revealed that the Department of Public Works, which manages the storage of confiscated materials, kept poor records of items, making it impossible to keep track of them and give them back to people who showed up to recover them. And the department had conspicuously few items in its possession.

Records showed that over a six-month period, the city staff had picked up and retained only 23 items — despite conducting “around the clock” cleanups of encampments, displacing hundreds of people, according to the department’s spokesperson.

Who officially proposed it?

Supervisors Mark Farrell, Katy Tang, Malia Cohen and Scott Wiener.

Farrell wrote the proponent argument.

Who officially opposes it?

Supervisors John Avalos, Eric Mar and Aaron Peskin; former supervisors Angela Alioto and Bevan Dufty; John Burton, the chair of the California Democratic Party; San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi; and Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.

Avalos wrote the official opponent argument.

Vote threshold to pass

Simple majority — 50 percent plus one

Effective date

To be determined.

Follow the money

One committee is spending money to support Proposition Q: “San Franciscans for Housing Not Tents Yes on Q.”

One committee is spending money to oppose the measure: “People for True Housing and Homeless Solutions, 2016; A Committee Opposed to Propositions Q and R.”

Follow the money at the San Francisco Ethics Commission: all Proposition Q filings.

Endorsements: our methodology

The Public Press chose to count endorsements from organizations that backed multiple candidates or ballot measures, and that made those endorsements available online. We did not count endorsements from individuals.

If you think we missed an important organization, please tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

Tracked endorsements by organization


Written by: Noah Arroyo and Sara Bloomberg

Published: Sept. 30, 2016