Biking and the Homeless on the Hairball: A Sad Situation for All

Cesar Chavez bike bridge under the 101. Photo: Dan Crosby.
Cesar Chavez bike bridge under the 101. Photo: Dan Crosby.

Dan Crosby works in tech and cycles to his job in SoMa, using the bike lanes and bridges along Cesar Chavez. Recently, Crosby brought this situation to the attention of Streetsblog: “There’s now a homeless encampment on the westbound Cesar Chavez bike bridge under the 101. There have often been a couple of tents there, but now there’s at least six tents, and a bunch of people standing around, ironically, a pile of bikes,” he wrote in an email to Streetsblog. “Yesterday I had someone exit their tent right in front of me in the very narrow space left for me to pass, and today I had to weave around several people.”

It was just two years ago that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) celebrated these safety improvements to Cesar Chavez and the notorious “Hairball” tangle of freeway on-and-off ramps where the whole mess crosses 101. “Today, we celebrated Cesar Chávez Streets’ transformation into a beautiful, calmer, more livable street, complete with bike lanes, bulb-outs, a planted median and a road diet from six to four lanes,” said a Bicycle Coalition release. And “A Traffic Sewer Transformed Into a Safer Street” was the celebratory headline in Streetsblog.

And now the crown jewel of the project, the bike bridge under 101, is blocked by tents and trash.

This is in no way to detract from the hard work of Fran Taylor, who lead the CC Puede movement to calm the street, reduce the lanes and make it a more livable area. Nor is it a slight to the Bicycle Coalition. Certainly, the road is much better. There are protected bike lanes for long stretches.

But the bridge is pretty much the only stretch where cyclists are completely separated from automobile traffic. It should be the safest part of the ride for Crosby and so many like him. Instead, bike riders how have to navigate around garbage and squeeze past tents and the homeless, many of whom have substance abuse problems, mental illnesses, or both. So why would homeless people want to camp in the middle of a bike lane, when there is so much empty land under the freeway and its ramps?

Even once they decamp, the homeless end up leaving trash on the bridge. Photo: Dan Crosby.
Even those who decamp leave trash on the bridge, which people on bikes then have to navigate around. Photo: Dan Crosby.

Scott Nelson, with the human rights committee at the Coalition On Homelessness, San Francisco, said it comes down to state versus city jurisdictions. The homeless prefer to camp, when they can, on the dirt under the 101. Obviously, it’s a horrible situation, but it’s one place where they’re not bothering anyone and, usually, people leave them alone.

But every now and again “the highway patrol kicks everyone off of the Caltrans property, so everyone packs up their stuff and puts it on the bicycle pathways,” said Nelson. “Then they wait for Caltrans to leave and then they move back down.”

Mostly. Others end up staying there. Or they leave trash behind for cyclists to navigate around, as in the photo above.

Would it really be so terrible to encourage the homeless to set up camps on this unused land if that's all they've got? Photo: Streetsblog.
Would it really be so terrible to permit the homeless to set up camps on this unused land if that’s all they’ve got and it might prevent obstructing the bike lane? Photo: Streetsblog.

Crosby, meanwhile, said he nearly crashed into a homeless man who happened to step out of a tent as he was cycling around it. He agrees: it’s a matter of time before there’s a bad crash. Or an altercation. And just like with car crashes, it won’t be an “accident” when it happens. If city and state agencies would stop playing “homeless whack-a-mole,” as Nelson called it, chasing the homeless from encampment to encampment, this could be prevented. One can also hope people will realize this isn’t a zero-sum game between well-paid techies and the homeless. Crosby could get fed up and decide to get to work another way. Homeless people, on the other hand, depend on bikes–perhaps more than anyone.

“As a city, we need to do more to meet the needs of people without homes and people who bike, and we should not have to choose between those two goals,” said Chris Cassidy, spokesman for the SFBC.

A homeless man towing a makeshift bike trailer on Cesar Chavez, most likely back to a hairball encampment. Photo: Streetsblog.
A homeless man towing a makeshift bike trailer on a safer Cesar Chavez, most likely back to a hairball encampment. Nobody depends on bike lanes more than the poor and the homeless. Photo: Streetsblog.

Caltrans, or perhaps another agency–it’s often difficult to tell where one jurisdiction ends and another begins–has also put chain link fences around some of the empty land under the freeway overpasses. The homeless, explains Nelson, are desperate for shelter and many just find a way to climb over or cut through the fences, so they have someplace–anyplace–to set up their tents.

A homeless tent set up behind government fencing meant to keep them out. Photo: Streetsblog.
A homeless tent set up behind government fencing meant to keep them out. Rather than putting up fences to keep the homeless out, perhaps it’s time to give them keys so they have somewhere secure to camp. Photo: Streetsblog.

Nelson said a better solution would be to leave a dumpster for their trash, and perhaps a few portable toilets and showers, and show some humanity for the homeless and mentally ill who are trying to survive here. Instead, “They want to push them out,” said Nelson. “The city needs to have a couple of spots where people can set up tents.”

Requests for comment from SFPD and Mayor Edwin Lee went unanswered.The SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing spoke briefly with Streetsblog and has not yet given an official statement on the matter. Streetsblog will update this story as responses come in.

“I definitely sympathize for the homeless, but one of the few pieces of completely protected bike infrastructure in the city doesn’t seem like the right way to accommodate them. Any suggestions beyond calling the police every day? Is it worth contacting SFMTA, the mayor, anybody?” asked Crosby, in his email to Streetsblog.

On those questions, Streetsblog would like to hear from its readers. Let us know what you think below.

  • RichLL

    This pits two of San Francisco’s poster children for progressive politics against each other – cyclists and the homeless.

    Who will win? Who can say? Whose side will Campos take? When will Peskin still his snout into the trough? Just get some popcorn and enjoy the show!

  • Luke

    I bike through here twice a day and the problem has gotten progressively worse over the past year. A colleague of mine who also rides her bike through the area daily has stopped taking the bike path and started riding with traffic though the area because she feels unsafe. Having had several near run-ins along that bike path myself, I really can’t blame her, as the area feels especially unsafe after dark. What does it say about our City that our cyclists feel safer riding with cars at freeway-like speeds than they do riding through a designated bike path?

  • ZA_SF

    Streetsblog, you may also want to inquire with Caltrans District 4 about what their plans are for this area and the homeless.

  • ZA_SF

    A few observations to share:
    Since I live near this area, and have for 15 years, I can attest that:

    1. The homeless population under and in the Hairball has been worse (during the Superbowl City in particular), with dozens of tents and easily 40+ people crowded away from the seasonal rain. The current population is back to about “average.” Gavin Newsom’s Mayorship saw the only protracted period with *no one* living in and under the Hairball.

    2. The homeless encampments extend all along the Caltrans right-of-way, to the green embankments above and below 101.

    3. Caltrans maintenance workers (with CHP security) now periodically (once a quarter?) clear the extended green embankment along Holladay Avenue, and repaint (over graffiti) the pedestrian bridge over 101 every 3rd year. The encampments near Cesar Chavez appear to get a SF DPW response periodically.

    I don’t know what “the” solution is, but Newsom’s Care Not Cash bundle of responses really did work for this area, and sustained success for years after periods of intervention. Still, the nature of the homeless population in the area has changed since then – more tents (instead of lean-tos), more lived-in vehicles, more families, newer arrivals (instead of chronic homeless, thanks Great Recession), and more frequent displacement (Ed Lee’s whack-a-mole).

  • chetshome

    But you don’t care–it’s just a show for your entertainment. Please go away.

  • Seth

    i bike through this area twice a day at least as well. it is definitely a problem and i don’t have the answer either… but i do think that sanctioning a tent city under the freeway is NOT the answer – this will lead to health and sanitation problems and will likely spiral to an untenable and dangerous degree. plus who will be responsible for emptying the dumpsters, picking up the litter, and cleaning the portapotties, and where will that funding come from? I realize that the City/Caltrans is already spending money, but that is roped into the regular cleanup operations already underway. i see Homeless Outreach Team workers here periodically, offering services, but it doesn’t make a huge difference.

    what i’ve seen are there are clearly folks here who are just trying to scrape by and live somewhere, others who are addicts and want to get high and be left alone, and there are others who are bike chop shop people and possible thieves. the latter is the most pressing issue as that causes the most community harm, and hopefully the new Homelessness Department will be able to address this encampment respectfully and successfully as they are trying to do with the encampment down the street on Port property.

  • RichLL

    A sense of humor is fairly essential for living in this city, especially given how many people take everything way too seriously, including you, evidently.

  • murphstahoe

    You are just feeding the troll

  • murphstahoe

    Underpass of broken bottles and dreams

  • Frank Kotter

    Totally agree but you aren’t witty or otherwise ‘funny’ in any way.

  • SF Guest

    I have to appreciate your sense of humor given that private autos are blamed for everything else and when cars are not involved it’s regarded as trolling.

  • the_greasybear

    You are not funny.

  • p_chazz

    Caltrans’ mission is to build and maintain roads and other transportation infrastructure, not care for the homeless. It’s part of the Transportation Agency.

  • p_chazz

    Homeless cyclists!

  • ZA_SF

    Caltrans maintains its rights-of-way and has to incorporate community concerns with their decisionmaking. I’m sure they would be overjoyed to work with other agencies to decrease their own burden.

  • p_chazz

    I would think that Caltrans would partner with health and human service agencies regarding homeless who trespass onto Caltrans ROW.

  • ZA_SF

    There’s a story in them there hills.

  • RichLL

    The Trotskyist left has always been an uncomfortable alliance of effete lily-white middle-class professional yuppie types and the mostly non-white underclass. If the bike lobby are only now discovering the limitations of that then cry me a freaking self-serving sanctimonious river.

  • murphstahoe

    Disqus allows blocking

  • murphstahoe


  • RichLL

    And yet you obviously do not employ it because you keep reading my contributions and irresistably responding to them.


  • SFhillrunner

    SFMTA is a pile of useless, tone-deaf bureaucrats. Trying to work with them is like falling into one of Dante’s circles of Hell. Just saying.

  • David

    “Would it really be so terrible to permit the homeless to set up camps on this unused land if that’s all they’ve got and it might prevent obstructing the bike lane?”

    Yes, it would. Look no further than the 80/Gilman interchange in Berkeley for an ongoing story of how letting the homeless do their thing only makes matters worse for everyone, include the homeless people themselves, to the point that people are desperate to fence up not just the “unused land” under the underpass but every other nook and cranny that isn’t being driven on. And since Caltrans and the City of Berkeley can’t fence up the sidewalk through the interchange, the area has become functionally inaccessible to pedestrians due to conditions similar to if not substantially worse than the ones pictured here.

    I recommend reading up on the occasional coverage by Berkeleyside if you’re curious to find out why the answer to the question you posed in that caption is a definitive yes.

  • calwatch

    The biggest issue is the concentration of homeless. Remember there are two sets of homeless – the kind which are extremely visible and the kind which are invisible. Many of the extremely visible kinds are mentally ill, while invisible homeless, primarily women and children but also including some men, are likely to be living in their car or somewhere by themselves or in small groups, rather than the large dozen or more pods.

    If you could give licenses to homeless people to camp places, similar to what Santa Barbara did in giving car campers a safe place to stay, that could work, since we know that there isn’t enough homeless shelter space. But they have to take their medication, get treatment, work (even in a menial city-funded job like picking up trash or painting over graffiti), keep their area clean, and not sexually harass or threaten those that come near. If they don’t, then they will be rousted periodically to make sure that they are working towards self sufficiency. Or they can choose to go to the shadows.

  • #CoolStoryBro but this article is about 101, which is not the SFMTA’s jurisdiction. The article (did you even read it?) mentions Caltrans, a state agency, which is responsible for 101 even in strange southern locales where it’s called “the” 101.

  • Califa G

    Homeless? Perhaps! But mainly bicycle thieves, heroin drug addicts and all sorts of very young criminals. By the way: if your bike gets robbed there is a 99% chance that it will end up there BEFORE it gets scrapped! And THERE means at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Potrero.


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