The spectacular Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in the state of California in the US is turning into a site of bitter confrontation between homeless campers and the better-off in the neighbourhood.
Three murders in the space of 13 months, syringes scattered all over and repeated police crackdown, all point to rising tensions.
AdvertisementClearly 'residents' are miffed by what they consider as encroachment by the homeless.
Like Belle Burnett, who lives near where a homeless man was found murdered. Groups of men still sleep in the park and that makes her extremely uncomfortable, she complains.
"Wednesday, we put out the garbage," says Burnett, who has lived there for three years now. "When I am coming home late, and I see somebody in my driveway going through my trash, they look angry at me. I'm thinking, 'No, this is my house.' "
The homeless though see themselves as harmless eccentrics, living on the fringes of society and are upset that the better-off residents should grudge them even that. Jeff Olsen, who lives in a battered camper ( a small truck), recalls bitterly, "I waved to one of the neighbors this morning, and he flipped me off....You try to be nice, but if you're homeless, you're automatically the scum of the earth."
The friction has only increased since the park has turned violent. The police say there are "similarities" in the three deaths, and speculation about a single homicide suspect is rampant. Olsen mutters darkly about residents near the park in the Outer Richmond who, he says, would be worth investigating. He says a tire was slit on one of his friend's truck, and he mentions a neighborhood man who often hassles them.
"I've seen him chastising people for peeing on his steps," says Burnett. "But I would, too."
Perhaps a more likely scenario is suggested by Jesse Bacon, who had been sleeping with two friends under an overpass next to the Beach Chalet at the Great Highway.
"I think the murders have to do with crack cocaine," says Bacon, who has been in San Francisco for only a week after sleeping on the street for eight weeks in Venice (Los Angeles County). He says he has also been shocked by the number of needles in the park.
"I've never seen anything like this in my life - the amount of syringes just lying on the ground here," Bacon says. Of course, the needles are only the most visible symbol of the problem of homeless encampments in the park. Despite four months of an active police presence, resulting in huge overtime payouts to the officers who participate, Newsom conceded this week that getting the encampments out of the park is an overwhelming task.
"It is very costly, but we are doing it anyway," San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom at a meeting with the editorial board of a newspaper campaigning against the park campers.
"We're down to 280 encampments that are consistent and problematic. And there were hundreds more. Inevitably, people will sneak back in. It's a tough, tough effort, not in any way analogous to (New York's) Central Park."
His long-range plan is to install a newly trained group of 10 to 13 park rangers in the park. But they were hired to help find campsites and move the squatters along.
The recent slayings cast the effort in an entirely new light. They suggest that a continuing police presence will be essential, say the gentry.
"I moved here from Hayes Valley because I thought it would be safer," Burnett says. "In three years, I've been approached by aggressive behavior, and we've had a murder. The other day, this guy was yelling at me from across the street, 'I'm going to kill you!' I just walked away."
The real concern is that the two sides become so fearful, and so polarized, that there is no room for the good work that the city's outreach crews are attempting to do. Out near the Stanyan Street entrance to the park, David Horn was reclining on a pad and working a crossword puzzle. A new arrival to San Francisco from Menlo Park, Horn admits he's had his bouts with alcohol abuse.
"I don't have a problem leaving the bottle alone if there isn't one around," he says. "But if there is, I don't mind having a drink."
But Horn's got a lot going for him. He was working for a Menlo Park landscaper a few weeks ago and says he's eager to get settled into some kind of permanent housing.
A "concerned" journalist suggests that the "squatter" check out with a city shelter in the region and hopes the man moves out eventually.
With such forces ranged against them, poverty grinding them and with only crack offering them some solace, the situation could turn explosive any time, it is feared.