Chinatown sees uptick in homeless people in neighborhood 

click to enlarge Chinatown has seen an increase in homeless individuals sleeping in doorways and urinating in public, as well as reportedly stealing from stores. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Chinatown has seen an increase in homeless individuals sleeping in doorways and urinating in public, as well as reportedly stealing from stores.

A rise in homeless people on Chinatown streets is being reported by residents and merchants in a neighborhood that some advocates say is ill-equipped to address the issue.

Portsmouth Square, the largest open space in Chinatown, has become an encampment for a half-dozen homeless people nightly, and until a couple weeks ago when the Recreation and Park Department reinstalled park hour signage, foot beat officers could not issue them citations.

"We didn't have the signs, so I would admonish them to leave the park," Officer Howard Chu said. "Now because the signs are up, we can issue citations. That's the plan, but I haven't started it yet."

Last week, the issue was a focus of Central Police Station Capt. David Lazar's first monthly Chinatown community meeting at the park's clubhouse. Peter Lee, executive corporate manager of the Portsmouth Square Garage, said the homeless presence has in the past several months crept over to Walter U. Lum Place, the alley along the western edge of the square.

"As usual, the homeless, they really are making a lot of trouble, urinating in the emergency stairwell," said Lee, referring to the stairs between the garage under the square and the alley. "My crew always complains to me that they have to clean up almost every night."

In 2014, Rec and Park received six 311 complaints of illegal encampment or dumping from homeless at Portsmouth Square, St. Mary's Square and Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground, department spokeswoman Connie Chan said. From September to last month, the department issued 17 illegal encampment citations at Portsmouth Square and 10 at St. Mary's Square, she said.

And during the daytime, homeless individuals wander along Grant Avenue, panhandling tourists.

Workers at Canton Bazaar on Grant Avenue near Sacramento Street, stocked with Chinese accessories, clothes and gifts, said they have had incidents with homeless individuals — often repeat offenders — nearly every week for the past year.

"Mostly they come in here and steal things under their coats, and go to Portsmouth Square and sell for cheaper," store worker Derek Wong said.

Dealing with homeless in Chinatown is no new task for Lazar and his four Cantonese-speaking foot beat officers, who regularly refer the individuals to the Homeless Outreach Team for services or in extreme cases — like with an elderly woman at the square two weeks ago who needed hospitalization — remove them.

"You just have to try to narrow it down for us and we'll take care of it," Lazar said at his community meeting, adding, "The long-term solution to deal with the homeless is services and not enforcement."

Some Chinatown community members suspect their perceived increase in the homeless presence is a result of the sweeps that surrounding neighborhood organizations pay for. The closest, the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District — encompassing Broadway between Grant Avenue and Montgomery Street, Kearny Street between Broadway and Pacific Avenue, and the eastside of Columbus Avenue from Pacific Avenue to Fresno Alley — hires a hospitality and safety team Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights whose main duty is to assist visitors, said Executive Director Benjamin Horne.

"You don't see a big amount of homeless people in our small area," he said.

But Karen Flood, the Union Square Business Improvement District's executive director, said that "we certainly do not do sweeps."

The North of Market-Tenderloin and Fisherman's Wharf community benefit districts could not be reached for comment on whether they hire ambassadors to keep homeless people off their streets.

An accurate count of homeless people in Chinatown and other areas does not exist.

"What we see is that they're getting displaced from one area into another area, but there's no large migration that is going from one neighborhood to another," said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Supervisor Julie Christensen agreed that homeless move around and "they're everywhere" in her district, which includes Chinatown.

Supervisor Jane Kim said she has also noticed some patterns of migration in her district, particularly homeless being displaced from the Transbay Transit Center development area.

"This is not based on scientific data, but it appears to me they are moving into other parts of The City because construction makes it hard to stay there," she said. "And residents are calling SFPD and the Homeless Outreach Team."

Homeless appear to be relocating to Chinatown from the Tenderloin and South of Market, according to David Ho, a community organizer with the Chinatown Community Development Center who also sits on the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District board.

"The new faces that we've seen definitely are not from Chinatown. Historically, they are driven out from other neighborhood pressures. Obviously, gentrification is one of them," Ho said. "People less tolerant of homeless folks on their driveway are more inclined to call the cops. People in a low- income community tend not to trust the police or make as many frequent calls."

Apart from the stigma around calling police that remains, particularly among new immigrants, Chinatown's uniquely insular small-business community does not fit the community benefit district or business improvement district models. Several attempts to organize in the past failed.

And Chinatown does not have a dedicated organization whose core mission is to deal with homelessness — both transients on the street and "invisible" homeless who couch surf or settle in a corner inside single-room-occupancy hotels. The Chinatown Community Development Center focuses on housing people in below-market-rate units and finding solutions to overcrowding.

"We're not a traditional neighborhood that deals with homeless issues," Ho said. "I think The City should definitely be the main vehicle to start that conversation with the community of whether there's a short-term or a long-term strategy."

Bevan Dufty, the Mayor's Office homeless czar, acknowledged there is an "uptick of street homeless" citywide that has prompted San Francisco's first homeless navigation center to open in the Mission next month for individuals to move in with their belongings and loved ones, including pets.

For the time being, the closest aid to Chinatown may be North Beach Citizens, a nonprofit founded in 2000 by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, residents and merchants who wanted to help transition individuals out of homelessness at Washington Square and Columbus Avenue between Fisherman's Wharf and Portsmouth Square.

Within a few years, the nonprofit dwindled the core of homeless numbers in North Beach from a couple dozen to just a few. This summer, North Beach Citizens is moving from its office on Columbus Avenue just north of Washington Square to Kearny Street and Pacific Avenue, a couple blocks from Portsmouth Square.

Kristie Fairchild, its executive director since 2003, sees the move as an opportunity to help Chinatown.

"I'd like to decrease the homeless situation at Portsmouth Square by half in the first couple of years when I move there," she said. "I think it's a realistic goal."

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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