San Francisco’s Homeless on Campus: What Happens?

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Public Safety receives reports of individuals around campus sorting through trash, trying to use the facilities or setting up tents under the ramp on Lone Mountain North. HALEY KEIZURE/FOGHORN

7,499 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals live in San Francisco.

Of those people, 3,840 live on the streets.

According to the City of San Francisco, this number increased by 4 percent between 2015 and 2017. These individuals either live in a private or publicly operated shelter or otherwise spend nights primarily in spaces not designed for sleeping. The number of homeless in the city has only been increasing due to rising prices and housing shortages in the Bay Area.

At its location in the center of the city, USF shares a space with numerous people who don’t have a home. This begs the question: What is the University’s policy when it comes to homeless people on campus?

People who come onto campus to sleep largely avoid areas of high foot traffic. Though students sometimes see people sorting through trash cans on main campus, Public Safety mostly see homeless people setting up sleeping bags by St. Ignatius Church or tents under the ramp on Lone Mountain North residence hall, Director of Public Safety Daniel Lawson said. USF is also located next to St. Mary’s Hospital, so Lawson said patients sometimes wander onto main campus.

We also have a number of people who walk into the UC or other buildings, where reclining areas are. Generally we get reports from [USF] members that someone has been there for awhile and is acting strangely,” Lawson said. “We aren’t looking for suspicious people; we are just looking for suspicious activity.”

Homeless people who come onto campus are typically looking for food and bathrooms. They are also looking for recyclables to turn in for cash, Lawson said.

When interacting with these individuals, Public Safety abides by an informal policy that strives to align with the mission of the University.

“We help find resources for people searching for refuge. We handle everything with care and compassion,” Lawson said.

But Public Safety still follows a certain protocol when someone is trying to set up camp on campus. First, the Public Safety officers make contact with the individuals and give them notice and time to vacate, which is usually 48 hours. Then, they offer resources such as clothing. Public Safety will also contact city services to give individuals access to shelters and escort them off campus, Lawson explained.

“They often refuse the services, [but] some take them up and our officers make arrangements. Then the site must be cleaned up. We are often left with equipment and belongings. If it is a camp set up on the north side of Lone Mountain, we call in a special biohazard organization that comes in and cleans up the site,” Lawson said.

Homeless people must vacate campus to ensure safety for USF students, said Craig Petersen, director of operations for facilities. Oftentimes individuals will light fires in drought zones which can be a high-risk, or they will leave needles around which pose a risk to students, he said.

“There is a balance between respect for these individuals [and] our primary concern, which is safety and security for students,” Petersen said.

“This is a very timely issue. We contact at least three to four people a day that fit into that category [of homelessness]. We understand the social issues and we try to deal with this crisis in a way that deescalates any tension that exists between police and the community,” Lawson said.

As a Jesuit university, Lawson said we do have an obligation to help others, but not necessarily to provide refuge. He also said that students are discouraged from buying homeless individuals meals.

“Some people that we have escorted off campus from encampments have the physical evidence that they have been involved in illegal activities, such as theft,” Petersen said. “While it is noble to want to help individuals in our society, be cautious in how you lend that support.”

For students wanting to help, there is a program on campus that collects clothing donations from members of the USF community. If students want to donate, they can contact Public Safety and they will set up a location for people to drop off clothes, Lawson said.

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