Firsthand Experience with Outreach in San Francisco’s Embarcadero


I took a couple of folks out on outreach for their first time. As usual, it was an eye-opening experience. We visited the encampments and the Embarcadero. There has been a lot of drama over the new “SAFE Navigation Center” opening at the Embarcadero.

The first person we encountered was an older woman. She told us how she’s been trying to get into the Navigation Center for some time now to no avail. When she asked if we could help get her in, I explained she need a referral from the City’s homeless outreach team (HOT) or law enforcement. Then she explained she rotates to three different spots during the day. One of them is located next to where the HOT workers park to go to the office. She said she asks them regularly if they can help get her into the Navigation Center.

The woman explained she needs people to call 311 to file a complaint/report. She knows we have a complaint driven system, as do many others experiencing homelessness. If the general public issues complaints about them to the city, they are more likely to receive help. So, she asked us all to call 311 a bunch on her at all three locations. She also regularly calls 311 on herself as if she is a bystander.

BTW… as of today, there are 1,316 people on the single adult shelter waitlist, waiting for a temporary shelter bed.

Concerns About Disqualification

We spoke with a gentleman sitting outside a market with his little dog. He mentioned the City’s new coordinated entry system and how he’s worried about saying the wrong thing. He is afraid he will inadvertently disqualify himself from getting help. His cute little dog helped him land a temporary shelter. He’s paying a small business owner to sleep at his business in the evenings. The gentleman has been homeless for years and hopes this temporary squat doesn’t blow his chance to get permanent housing.

Another thing he mentioned was multiple issues with SSI lately. He said it is common among those he knows. Are others hearing about folks recently having issues with SSI? It’s not that I’m cynical and don’t trust my government to not screw over folks receiving SSI … oh wait … never mind.

Sweeps Continue, City Begins Targeting Vehicles

We made it down to the encampments and got an update from folks. Sweeps are happening as usual and folks are having their belongings thrown away. During a sweep last week, one guy we know had the ashes of his friend taken by the city. He said he always kept his friend’s ashes with him. His friend’s ashes are irreplaceable.

We spoke with a younger woman who was previously living in her car. Due to mounting parking tickets she was unable to pay, she lost her car/home. We receive calls at COH on a regular basis from folks whose vehicles/homes are towed, yet they are too poor to get it back. That is a big loss for folks. Often, it’s the last option for folks before having to sleep hard on the street. Since the City has done such a “great job” getting rid of tents, they are now targeting vehicles more. That includes the folks who live in their vehicles.

The Embarcadero and Safe Navigation Center

We made our way over to the Embarcadero. I noticed that folks in that area often tend to be isolated, alone and unsheltered. That’s concerning. For all the horror stories we’ve been hearing from folks in the Embarcadero, things seem really tame. I’m sure they have their moments in this area, but I’m used to the Tenderloin. So, this area to me was so… boring.

We noticed a small group with their stuff sitting in a park by the bay. They were very aware of the drama happening in the neighborhood over the Navigation Center opening there. While they haven’t attended community meetings yet, they have noticed an increase in enforcement and harassment. They have also had the media buzzing around a lot. Some are taking pictures of them without the decency of asking permission first.

The woman in the picture has been doing interviews with media about homelessness in the Embarcadero. She pointed to the Salesforce tower in the background and said Marc Benioff tweeted a comment about being for people experiencing homelessness or being for yourself. She liked that quote. We made a sign using the quote and took a picture with the Salesforce tower and the parking lot/future site of the SAFE Navigation Center in the background. Apparently, I’m a good photographer because I caught a picture when she was smiling.

The guys we spoke with, who are unhoused in the Embarcadero, said that they don’t need others to speak for them at these community meetings. They can speak for themselves. Folks experiencing homelessness in this neighborhood haven’t been part of the discussions about the new SAFE Navigation Centers, yet.

Outreach Is an Intense Experience

I asked the newbies on outreach what they thought of their first experience. Armando (our new human rights organizer) said he can see why I love outreach so much. He said hearing people’s experiences firsthand is completely different than reading about what’s happening on the street. Both Armando and Anisha (our intern) have a lot to process. I can forget how intense the experience can be for folks.

Some folks think we exaggerate about Sweeps and people getting their belongings taken by the City. But when you visit and listen to folks, you quickly find they don’t have a place to legally exist. And, the City is violating their basic human rights.

Kelley Cutler

Kelley Cutler


Kelley Cutler is a Human Rights Organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. She has specialized in the field of social work for over 20 years, working with poor and marginalized populations.

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