SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 14 (Reuters) – On a sunny Sunday before world leaders were scheduled to gather for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, United Nations Plaza, one of the epicenters of San Francisco’s drug and homelessness crisis, , a festive air.
Until recently a busy marketplace for loot and open-air drug dealing, the area had been spruced up with a brand new skate park and trainees from a dance company performing for a crowd. There was hardly a homeless person to be seen. Police officers and city officials also watched.
On Tuesday, the day of US President Joe Biden’s arrival, Christopher Crandall, 50, who usually sleeps on the street in a section of downtown San Francisco west of the APEC convention center, said he had noticed the city had planted new trees along the arterial Market Street .
He had also seen waist-high gates open on Tuesday morning in the area where he usually sleeps. “I wonder if I’ll be able to sleep there tonight,” he said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking at an event Thursday focused on beautifying the state, said local, state and federal leaders had been discussing the issue for months.
“I know people say, ‘Oh, they’re just cleaning up here because all the smart executives are coming to town.’ It’s true … This is momentum. And I want people to know that you’re seeing a lot more of this around town and in the Bay Area.”
For years, San Francisco has waged a multi-pronged war on drugs and related crime, homelessness and unaffordable housing. It has grabbed headlines as a city in an economic “doomsday loop” as some businesses have closed, public transport has fallen and offices are empty following the pandemic.
Officials have tried to clean up the city’s streets, with limited success. The crisis has drawn sharp criticism from residents and conservative politicians, who have blamed the city’s problems on its liberal policies.
Cleanup efforts ahead of the summit — where President Biden and China’s Xi Jinping will meet — have failed to convince some people who are skeptical that these improvements will last.
Forcing the homeless to move — called “sweeps” — will never solve the real problem, which is not enough affordable housing, said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of homeless groups.
“They do this for the Superbowl, they do this for conferences … but nothing ends homelessness like a home,” Boden said.
The city has a homelessness rate of 887 people per 100,000 residents, according to a 2023 report by the San Francisco controller’s office on 16 U.S. cities. That was the third-highest rate in the country behind neighboring Oakland and Los Angeles.
“Where did they go?” Tesla ( TSLA.O ) chief executive Elon Musk tweeted on Friday a video from conservative outlet Fox News reporting that tents used by the homeless had been cleared. Musk, who bought Twitter, now called X, last year has previously tweeted about San Francisco’s problems.
The company’s headquarters are adjacent to the Tenderloin, the city neighborhood usually filled with homeless encampments and people taking and selling drugs.
Trevor Chandler, an elementary school teacher running for local office, said many residents in his district noticed homeless encampments being pushed away from near the APEC conference and into their neighborhoods.
“I’ve knocked on 2,000 doors, and what voters are telling me is that they’re tired of Band-Aids continuing these problems and pushing them elsewhere. So people are both excited and sad to see where clean downtown is right now,” he said.
Reporting by Peter Henderson and Anna Tong in San Francisco; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Stephen Coates
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