San Francisco residents bought boulders to deter homeless people on their block. The city says the rocks weren’t big enough.

A two-block alley in San Francisco has become a microcosm of escalating tensions over the city’s homelessness crisis.

About a month ago, residents of Clinton Park, an area close to the city’s Mission District, raised money through a Facebook group to erect two dozen giant boulders along the sidewalk in order to bar homeless individuals from setting up tents in the alley.

David Smith-Tan, who lives in Clinton Park, told local news station KTVU that he and his neighbors “chipped in a few hundred dollars” to have the 300-pound boulders delivered. The neighborhood, he said, is frequently occupied by people who use drugs and “shoot up and stay overnight.”

The move incited intense local controversy. Activists tried to clear the sidewalk by pushing the rocks onto the street, but that created a traffic hazard, so the city’s public-works department lifted the boulders back onto the sidewalk via crane. Then on Monday, the department removed the boulders because Clinton Park residents were reportedly getting harassed in person and online. Residents said they received death threats and were yelled at on the street.

However, the San Francisco Examiner reported that the city might welcome even larger boulders on the sidewalk in the future.

“The problem is they are not big enough,” public-works director Mohammed Nuru reportedly told the Examiner, adding that the city was seeking a “more permanent” solution.

San Francisco’s homelessness crisis continues to escalate

San Francisco has nearly 10,000 homeless residents, a number that’s risen by 30% since 2017. Around 42% of these people struggle with drug or alcohol abuse.

“It got to the point where everybody was just done,” an anonymous resident of Clinton Park told local news station KGO, referring to the decision to erect boulders. “People had knives and guns and people were out fighting, carrying on, and waking up people in the neighborhood.”

Another anonymous resident of the area told the San Francisco Chronicle that neighbors had called the police hundreds of times before the boulders went up in September.

But some locals saw the set-up as hostile toward homeless residents. Danielle Baskin, a San Francisco resident who calls herself an “anti-rock agitator” on Twitter, tried to have the boulders removed by placing them on Craigslist, but her listings were taken down. She said on Twitter that erecting the boulders was “barbaric” and made “walking more difficult for everyone.”

The tug-of-war between activists who pushed the rocks off the sidewalk and city officials who put them back continued for days, with public-works employees reportedly returning to the street at least three times in one week.

In the meantime, residents told the city they were being harassed by activists.

“I met with residents yesterday and they are feeling intimidated and frightened,” Rafael Mandelman, the city supervisor for Clinton Park, told the Chronicle. “They didn’t like having drug dealing and violence outside their doors before, and they don’t like masked vigilantes coming in and protesting and removing rocks.”

Residents are divided about whether homeless camps should be allowed to stay

Giant rocks to deter tents aren’t a new fixture for San Francisco: In 2017, the city placed boulders under a highway to block homeless encampments near Potrero Hill, a residential neighborhood. At the time, city officials said it was a “humane” way to discourage people from camping out, the Chronicle reported.

Homeless San Francisco

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In previous years, various groups in San Francisco have tried to deter homeless residents in other ways. In 2015, the San Francisco Roman Catholic Archdiocese installed sprinklers outside a cathedral that sprayed homeless residents who tried to camp out in their doorways. In the 1990s, the city removed benches from a plaza near City Hall to prevent people from sleeping on them. Other benches throughout the city feature rails and spikes to prevent homeless people from lying down – a common design tactic in crowded urban areas.

Not all neighbors in Clinton Park supported the boulder plan, though. An anonymous resident told Curbed that the installment “sets a bad precedent,” while another, Pablo Soriano, said the decision “comes from a negative place.”

“Needles and human feces have always been an issue, but I don’t think this is the best solution,” Soriano said. “Maybe instead of putting the time and effort of putting ugly rocks on the sidewalk, my neighbors could donate to foundations and try to get City Hall to fund more shelters, counseling, and methadone clinics.”

The debate over how to address San Francisco’s homelessness crisis took the national stage in September, when President Trump accused homeless people of ruining the city’s highways, streets, and buildings. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein responded by saying homelessness can’t be solved by simply sweeping people off the street.

Although the boulders in Clinton Park have been taken away, public-works department officials have said they’re still open to other ways to block homeless encampments – including larger boulders.

“We will support whatever the residents want to do,” Nuru told the Chronicle on Monday.