IN THE FOG or Homeless in Golden Gate Park
Actually, homeless is not exactly accurate. Certainly
there are many who walk into the Park every night roll out a blanket
and lay down for they have nowhere else to go. There are also many
who choose to make Golden Gate Park their home. They claim their space,
often put up structures, and spend their days and nights mostly in
the Park. To classify these people as addicts, derelicts, down on
their luck, or any of a number of labels is wrong as they are as varied
as the population of the city. The one common thread is sleeping or
even living in Golden Gate Park has become acceptable again and this
For the first 36 years of it is existence, Golden
Gate Park was physically closed at sunset and opened at sunrise. One
notable exception was a granted petition by the people that the park
remain open until 10pm on nights of a full moon. After the ’06
Quake all this changed. Golden Gate Park became a refuge for a population
displaced. Tens of Thousands first put up tents, and then more permanent
structures were provided while the city rebuilt. Though the quake
occurred in April, John McLaren announced to the Park Commission in
December that all of the temporary residents and their structures
had been resettled elsewhere and the Park was again a park.
Until the early 1980 anyone found in Golden Gate Park at night was
rousted and sent packing. Certainly many did sleep there; what is
called Quarry Lake or the Lilly Pond, across JFK from the Conservatory,
was also called Hobo Lake by some. In 1920 a party of northern California
Indians were reported camping at ‘Hobo’ lake. They had
been told that they must come and see the grand city but found the
Park the only appropriate place to pitch their teepees.
In the 1980’s everything changed with the Presidency
and actions of Ronald Reagan. Legions of our fellow citizens found
themselves below the level where the trickle of “trickle-down
economics” reached. They also found that the “safety net”
only applied to large corporations, not individuals. Sleeping on the
street became and continues a way of life and sleeping in the Park
an attractive alternative. Recall that Mayor Art Agnos opened Civic
Center Plaza to these “homeless” (Camp Agnos it was labeled)
and was soundly defeated at the first opportunity by Frank Jordon,
a past police chief who promised a strong hand with these displaced.
In 1994 my son was a youth councilor at a soccer camp held at Beach
Chalet at the western end of the Park. He reported that every day
a “transient” would emerge from the bushes waving a gun
and all the children would be collected and police summoned. This
continued until one evening a policeman was actually shot in this
area. With this, Mayor Jordan initiated the “Matrix” program.
One evening several dozen police walked shoulder to shoulder from
the east to the west end of Golden Gate Park, expelling all they found
in their path. Many were provided transport across or down the Bay,
ending up in Berkeley and Santa Cruz. Frank was also a one-term Mayor,
with the illustrious Willie Brown taking his turn with “the
Mayor Brown first directed a hands-off policy with
the “transient” population. Several large camps of “squatters”
sprung up in the western half of the Park, with turf wars resulting.
One month the fire department was called out regularly as these factions
attempted to burn out their rivals. Mayor Brown directed that all
the homeless be removed from the Park and proposed that San Francisco
borrow a helicopter with infrared sensors to fly over park to locate
these hotbeds. Then Acting Rec and Park Director Joel Robinson, asked
Park Superintendent Jim Koonie who asked District Superintendent Curtis
Coats if the problem has been resolved. To which Curtis assured back
up the line all was taken care of.
Of note is an incident where Curtis leaving his van unlocked, approached
an encampment with orders to vacate. When he returned to his van he
found a female squatter backing out of the van with his wallet, which
he’d left on the seat. When he confronted the thief, he was
greeted with a knife and never saw his wallet again.
Who can forget that memorable election evening in 1998 when Mayor
Brown was being interview on the outcome of the election. The interviewer
off handedly asked the Mayor about the “homeless issue in the
Park.” Mayor Brown responded that his Director had assured him
the problem was resolved. Cut to an image of Ken Garcia sitting in
a tent on the eastern edge of the Park, in view of McLaren Lodge,
while a ‘camper’ showed him how to “shot up.”
Such was the brief tenure of Joel Robinson as Director of Rec and
Mayor Brown then conducted his version of Jordan’s Matrix, but
being the brilliant politician Willie was, and is, he would not allow
a name be associated with his sweep of the Park. Thousands of “campers”
were chased into the streets. Conditions in the Park changed, but
only briefly. “Campers” returned, but not with the living
rooms of furniture and “shooting galleries” of before.
A needle exchange was actually discovered when one intrepid gardener
dared to crawl into a den created in a clump of shrubs.
With each new mayor, comes a new wave of campers.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, to his credit has attempted to use a carrot and
stick approach with our urban displaced. Certainly many areas of our
city reflect the efforts to offer and then demand our homeless find
housing. But where do those that don’t or won’t qualify
for or accept Care not Cash go? Where else, but Golden Gate Park.
Today best guesses place the permanent residents in the park between
1,000 and 1,500. Many I can personally attest have lived there for
over two years. Most are decent enough souls, keeping a low profile
and simply choosing the park as their home. Sadly, most is not all
and those of us that walk the Park regularly know where not to walk,
or trust our dogs off leash as they will surly find human waste to
roll in or worse. Similarly destroying the Park experience are the
deranged individuals that scream profanities at no one visible for
hours on end. Or the soul that through a glass bottle at a friend
because our conversation disturbed his sleep at 5 in the afternoon.
In the last two cases, police were summoned but refused to take action
until someone was actually injured.
Equally disturbing is the direction given park staff to not disturb
“campers” for they will cross into the neighborhoods,
upset the residents, who then complain to City Hall. As the Park is
“Closed” between 10pm and 6am, out of sight out of mind
seems to be the code words.
Where do we go from here? Until we accept that some
among us must be provided the support and motivation to accept housing,
we will have homeless and all we will do is move them around. Kicking
them out of the Park moves them back to Soma, and round and round
We have specific laws forbidding anyone being in the Park at night,
but with one Park Patrol on duty FOR THE CITY, and direction to look
the other way, we should expect numbers of campers in the park to
swell until conditions deteriorate to unacceptable by City Hall standards.
Then there will be a major clean up effort and the cycle will began
again. What it will take this time is the question? As the Park is
less and less important at a Park to City Hall, Museums and expensive
golf courses taking precedence to actual park activities, I fear that
it will take something really nasty to bring out the troops and return
the Park to park.