Giant Boulders Mirror The Desperation In California's Homelessness Crisis

Residents in a San Francisco neighborhood set off a public feud when they lined sidewalks with rocks to curtail encampments, drug use and noise.

A narrow, unassuming two-block stretch in San Francisco where residents placed 24 giant rocks along the sidewalk has found itself a symbol of the desperation, frustration and emotions of California’s homelessness crisis.

The Clinton Park alley boulders, for which neighbors pooled several thousand dollars in order to physically deal with the street’s ongoing problem with tent camps and open drug dealing, captured national media attention this week when San Francisco Public Works hauled them away and into storage at those same neighbors’ request, just days after they were installed.

The residents had unwittingly invited a new predicament: Activists pushed the boulders into the streets to protest what they saw as a cruel effort to shoo off homeless people and, in some instances, they sent death threats, residents said.

“We don’t want to feel the fire anymore,” one resident, who kept their identity private for fear of retaliation, told the San Francisco Chronicle

But the saga’s likely far from over. Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru told local media outlets Monday that bigger boulders may be the solution, and his department “will support whatever the residents want to do,” be it new rocks or a more artful landscaping solution.

But whatever the conclusion, the city ― and the state of California ― will still have a growing population of homeless residents and a staggering shortage of short- and long-term housing solutions that no size of rock can fix. 

“Boulders on sidewalks are not the solution,” state Sen. Scott Wiener (D), whose district includes San Francisco, told HuffPost.

Before taking statewide office, he was the supervisor for the area encompassing Clinton Park and saw firsthand how much drug use, violence, noise and other issues residents were putting up with, he said. “I think it’s important to understand that these people are just trying to live their lives,” he said of their grievances. 

That doesn’t mean people on both sides of the controversy shouldn’t be angry, he noted.

“The broader issue is our failure as a state to really address the homelessness crisis,” Wiener said. California is home to nearly a quarter of the nations’ homeless people. 

“We have a broken policy when it comes to housing, and we should all be very upset about that,” he added, referencing city and state policy that has made it extremely difficult to build more housing (despite skyrocketing rents that displace people) or erect new homeless shelters and service centers (despite the homeless population increasing 30% to 40% in the past two years in some California counties).

The same day those homelessness numbers came out in May, California lawmakers tabled their only bill aimed at expanding the housing market. Senate Bill 50, authored by Wiener, would have allowed for bigger and denser residential construction near major transit hubs.

That was “frustrating,” Wiener said, but he plans to reintroduce similar legislation when the Senate reconvenes next year. His recent successes increasing funding for emergency shelters and streamlining the approval for homeless navigation centers keep him hopeful.

For now, San Francisco remains the picture of the homelessness crisis in both California and the country at large. The showdown over the boulders is only the most recent one to highlight a broken system and the simmering tensions about how to address it.

Last year, one of the most hotly debated propositions on the San Francisco ballot sought to tax the city’s wealthiest companies in order to double the money the city spends on helping the homeless. The proposal divided leaders of San Francisco’s wealthy tech companies, and, though voters ultimately passed it, opponents sued and the funds were tied up until this summer. 

In July, residents of an affluent San Francisco neighborhood sued the city and state to stop construction of a 200-bed navigation center, a newer take on traditional shelters that hand-picks a population of homeless people to serve through beds, case managers, medical services and more relaxed policies on pets and meal schedules. 

That lawsuit came despite calls from the navigation center’s supporters at an April meeting that residents acknowledge homeless people as their neighbors.  

“These people are not noncontributing citizens. They’re not criminals,” Armando Garcia, a human rights organizer for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, said at that meeting. “They’re San Franciscans, just like anybody here. Many of them have lived here a long time, and ... they deserve to share in the success of this city.”