Fires sparking from homeless encampments located on a small strip of California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) owned land between San Bruno Avenue and Highway 101 continue to pose a threat to nearby residents, and their homes.

Since the View reported on the issue last month, multiple small blazes have been spotted in the area.  Representatives from the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), California Highway Patrol (CHP), San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), and Caltrans have met at the site to discuss possible ways to address fire hazards. “We have everyone on board, and continue to make a coordinated effort,” said a SFFD spokesperson.

Caltrans has been fielding staff to the site regularly since late-October to clear brush and debris. Some campers have been removed; many continue to return. The City’s Homeless Outreach Team has also been visiting the area, encouraging homeless individuals to seek shelter services. “It seems to have improved a little bit,” Sam Dodge, director of the Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement (HOPE) office, said, “but it’s a tough situation back there.”

There are 1,200 shelter beds available in San Francisco. They operate at about 96 percent capacity nightly, leaving between 30 to 70 beds available, Dodge explained. The City hopes to add 750 to 1,000 beds for the winter, in preparation of expected El Niño storms, at various sites.

The shelters gives respite for some, but still leave a large portion of the approximately 6,500 homeless San Francisco residents out in the cold.

A public meeting was held at Slovenian Hall last month, with community members, CHP officials, Bob Haus, public information branch chief for Caltrans District 4, and Raoul Herrera, leader of the Caltrans crew that works on the property, in attendance.   Hill residents complained about a lack of responsibility-taking from City and state agencies, particularly pointing to City departments as unwilling to respond to calls from community members.

Caltrans outlined a variety of potential solutions, including building a tall rod-iron fence with curved edges at the top, which is expected to be completed by spring at a cost of $500,000. The fence would encircle Caltrans’ property, and make access more difficult. “There is no fence that is going to be 100 percent effective at keeping people out,” Haus said. “Caltrans cannot single-handedly solve homelessness. We have to work with various other agencies.” Many campers access the area using the freeway, and even climb up using ropes, Herrera added.

Hill residents are worried that a fence built four months from now isn’t going to solve the immediate threats posed by uncontrolled blazes. Since many of the fires are used for cooking and warmth, it’s unlikely that the small conflagrations will stop during the winter.

According to a CHP officer, people return to the area because those who trespass are issued citations, and are only arrested once they become a multiple offender. Oftentimes vagrants are jailed and released without a charge from the District Attorney, the officer added.

Other solutions include continuous brush clearing, and planting cactus. One community member suggested the Adopt a Highway program. Herrera said that the idea was feasible because the Benches Garden is already part of that program.

Haus hopes to have another meeting this month involving more departments, including the SFFD, SFPD, HOPE, the District Attorney, as well as Caltrans and the CHP.

Originally Published December 2015: The Potrero View 

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