how dumb would it be to sleep outside one night in San Francisco?
July 14, 2018 4:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning a trip that involves flying into San Francisco and catching a bus the next day. I've heard that this city has a lot of homeless people. I'm wondering if I could avoid paying for a hotel. How difficult, dangerous, or expensive would it be for a healthy young man with a backpack and some camping experience to unroll a bivy sack under a hedge somewhere for the night?

The weather looks incredibly safe, so I'm mostly concerned about people. Getting rousted and spending a sleepless night walking around would be an okay outcome. Getting arrested, beaten, or robbed would be bad.

Note that while I speak fluent English and broken but intelligible Spanish, I am not familiar with the area or its local mores, so stuff like, "you just have to know what trouble looks like" would be a no-go.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hang on a sec. Do you actually need to physically sleep, or do you just need to wander for eight to ten to twelve hours overnight to catch your bus?

It is incredibly likely you can sleep on your plane, spend a few hours catching up with your email or Metafilter at the airport, take a BART into downtown SF or Oakland, hike to a late-nite eatery or somewhere that opens early like Bob's Donuts to spend a few more hours with a coffee and your laptop, maybe spend some time at a cheap museum, then spend some time getting to your bus stop and hanging out there.

If you actually need to sleep, you can pay $10 for a BART ride downtown and then $100 or so for a hostel, and that will be way better than what might happen on the streets.

If I flew into SFO at 10pm or midnight and then needed to catch a bus at, say noon the next day, it is completely possible to spend enough time hanging around or touristing to make things work. But if you actually need to sleep for a good bit of time? As someone who lived in San Francisco for years, I certainly wouldn't do it on the streets.
posted by eschatfische at 4:40 PM on July 14, 2018 [15 favorites]

Why not sleep at the airport? SFO is open all day.
posted by typify at 4:40 PM on July 14, 2018 [48 favorites]

Go to one of the hostels.
posted by nikaspark at 4:54 PM on July 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

You can also rent shared space in someone's house/apartment on Airbnb, or find a free couch to sleep on via Couchsurfing.
posted by pinochiette at 4:58 PM on July 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here's the entry on airport sleeping at SFO.
posted by praemunire at 5:05 PM on July 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

And just to address the outcome if you slept outside- you might be fine, but I know the police do sometimes arrest people for sleeping in, say, Golden Gate Park, and there's at least some chance you could be robbed. Someone was brutally murdered in the park. More insignificantly, you could get soaked by sprinklers, which are all over the park. (I mention the park because it seems like a safer option than sleeping on a sidewalk somewhere, which many homeless people do). Lands End might be a little better than GG Park, but overall, I don't think it's worth it. The fact that there are a lot of homeless people in SF doesn't really make sleeping rough easier.
posted by pinochiette at 5:16 PM on July 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, I would actually like to sleep, not merely sit unmolested.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 5:17 PM on July 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Echoing other folks' suggestions about sleeping in the airport, or finding someone on Couchsurfing, or wandering all night. But if you do need to sleep outside, my question is: have you slept outside in cities before? If so, you're probably already somewhat savvy about finding out-of-the-way niches to sleep in, and though many parts of San Francisco have a high homeless population, there are quite a few neighborhoods that don't. Opt for those--so definitely avoid the thicket of downtown, the Tenderloin, the Mission, and other homeless-heavy areas. You'll want to sleep on your pack, to prevent it from being stolen, or with your arms hooked around the straps and the pack itself turned so it can't be unzipped without jostling you awake. (If you're in a wooded area, you could also stash your pack nearby as long as it's carefully hidden.) If I were going to sleep outside, I'd probably go to Land's End or the Presidio, or to a secluded spot on the western end of Golden Gate Park (not the parts where stoner traveler kids congregate). I might also sleep in a church doorway in the Richmond? Any of these places will be colder and windier than the eastern side of San Francisco, and if you don't have warm clothes you definitely won't get much sleep. For that matter, you could certainly try to stay in a shelter, although the rules of homeless shelters make them a hassle for lots of people, and you may be at a greater risk of getting your stuff jacked there than wild camping in the Presidio.
posted by tapir-whorf at 5:20 PM on July 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's OK to get an Airbnb when you have no other choice. Please don't sleep on the street. Sleep at the airport, find somewhere cheap like an Airbnb, or take naps on the OWL if you have no other choice. The 91-OWL is actually kind of rad because you see every neighborhood, but without tourists. My suggestion would be to close down a bar at 2AM, get on the 91 going north from the Richmond, ride it to West Portal, then either take it the other direction to get to the 38 Geary, then hustle to the 24-hour Denny's outside Moscone to kill time until 6 when BART opens up. You could probably also get a nap in a midnight movie if you don't snore.

It's not safe to sleep outside in SF. First of all, everywhere that looks like a good spot to sleep? Someone else has already figured that out and probably won't appreciate a tourist. Second, the cops have nothing better to do, there are serious sit-lie laws, and there are a lot of rich homeowners who feel strongly about loitering. Also, stay the fuck out of Golden Gate Park after sunset.

China Beach or Ocean Beach/Land's End might be deserted enough to be safe, but they might also be full of partying kids, especially in the summer.
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:24 PM on July 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

In the suburbs, you can sometimes find an unsecured ladder to the roof behind a stripmall. In cities--and especially in a city with such a large homeless population--they're rarer. Which is to say, keep your eyes out but don't expect to find one.

If you run into can collectors, I'd straight up ask them for advice. Canners are so hardworking (which in turn means they're very unlikely to be jackrollers), and could scoff at you but may also give you some tips. They'll know their particular swathe of the city as well as just about anyone.
posted by tapir-whorf at 5:28 PM on July 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

People who have no option but the street are operating under a fragile and complicated set of rules shared largely by whispernet. You are not going to know those rules which is bad for your safety but also risks fucking it up for them. This should be a last resort situation; there are other low-cost options.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:30 PM on July 14, 2018 [78 favorites]

This is such a terrible idea. Please sleep at the airport in the lounge or something. It's safe and normal to do so instead of exposing yourself to danger sleeping on the street in SF. Based on my past encounters with the homeless population in SF, you do not want run-ins with them.
posted by whitelotus at 5:54 PM on July 14, 2018 [21 favorites]

You can get a hostel for $50-ish in SF. That's what I've done in the past.
posted by all the light we cannot see at 6:03 PM on July 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I am an adventurous traveler who has definitely rolled out the bivy in foreign cities when I was 'not supposed to'.... but I think the homeless situation in SF makes this untenable. I don't know if you've been here lately but there are massive camps everywhere, it is much worse than whatever you are imagining. You being an interloper in a lot of people's desperate reality makes the risk level non-zero.

All of the obvious 'stealth' camping options you've probably done before (in a park, under a hedge, around a church, in a bus station, whatever) are not going to be options here - even the Catholic church in SF was turning their sprinklers on the homeless. The neighborhoods that don't have homeless camps are that way because those people will call the cops the second you look longingly at a bush.

Ten years ago I would have said totally... just go find a non obvious spot in a park or something, but if it were me I'd bring earplugs and sleep in a corner of SFO somewhere...
posted by bradbane at 6:13 PM on July 14, 2018 [25 favorites]

This would be a bad idea. The homeless problem in San Francisco is both large and complex. It would be too easy to wander into a situation you have no idea about.

Sleep on the floor at SFO.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:43 PM on July 14, 2018 [21 favorites]

Nthing don’t do this. In addition to the things mentioned above, yes the police may very well ticket you for sitting or lying down in the city. If you’re going to pay a ticket, you might as well have spent the same money and have a nice place to stay, instead of the street. The first infraction is $50-$100 plus community service. And if you get another within 24 hours, it’s $300-$500. That’s an expensive risk.
posted by greermahoney at 7:27 PM on July 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Don't holiday in someone else's actual reality. This is dumb and also disrespectful, and unlikely to be looked on positively by whoever you might encounter while sleeping rough. Just sleep at the airport, SFO is very overnight-friendly.
posted by assenav at 7:39 PM on July 14, 2018 [51 favorites]

You should definitely sleep at the airport. There's a Subway on the second floor, the booth benches fill up pretty quickly but if you get one it's really nice. Otherwise there are benches and lounge chairs in the hallways between terminals. Its one of the best airports in the country to sleep in.

If you want to sleep outside, in the city you're going to have a lot of trouble finding a spot. My big worry would be getting settled in a spot around midnight not knowing someone else has 'claimed' it but doesn't arrive till 1 am. I think this would be the most likely way you'd get into trouble. I'd recommend getting taking BART to a suburban stop like Richmond or Antioch. You'll have a lot more luck with traditional stealth camping in places like this farther from homeless services. Though it will probably be a bit more crowded than you're used to. You can then BART in to the city to catch your bus.
posted by hermanubis at 8:43 PM on July 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Going up into the City to 'sleep rough' is being rejected as dumb by many. I wouldn't know, no direct experience with this in decades; but my reaction, given your first stop is SFO, would be to find a place down there, in Millbrae, then ride BART or the Caltrain up to catch your bus the next day. When you arrive, ride BART over to Millbrae station, just one stop. From there you can walk over to El Camino Real, the main drag along the Peninsula. Plenty of possible venues for a discrete overnight right around there, or in nearby Burlingame or Belmont. From Millbrae to San Francisco, it could take just 20 minutes, but you should allow at least an hour to get up there.
posted by Rash at 8:51 PM on July 14, 2018

You can pay for day access to your airline's vip/frequent flyer lounge. I think it's $50 for a day. They have beds and showers.
posted by toomanycurls at 9:18 PM on July 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: For everyone advising me to sleep at the airport: Are SFPD/TSA okay with this? I'd expect the secured area to be lousy with security people actively looking out for anyone lingering inappropriately.

Note that I do not have a connecting flight. I'm transferring to ground transportation.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:49 PM on July 14, 2018

I’ve never overnighted at SFO but I have at other airports and have never once been asked to show my ongoing ticket when I’m in the secure area. Just walk off your plane and crash right there in the gate lounge.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:28 PM on July 14, 2018 [13 favorites]

I’ve also not overnighted at SFO but have at other airports. I’ve done it both inside and outside security. Not had a problem.

I have found the information on the Sleeping In Airports website mostly accurate (someone has already linked above).

You can try Flyertalk forums for more info specifically about sleeping at SFO too.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 12:43 AM on July 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Have you considered
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:44 AM on July 15, 2018

Assuming you're arriving on a domestic flight (and not having to go through Customs when you land in San Francisco) you should be fine sleeping at the airport, provided you don't check a bag. I have slept at many airports, all over the world. Once you're through security no one cares, and no one will ask to check for proof of a connecting flight unless you try to switch terminals (and sometimes not even then).

If it were a small city airport that truly shuts down overnight and was not a hub for connecting flights, you might have a problem. SFO does not fit that description.

Find a quiet corner of the airport, hunker down, and sleep in relative safety and peace until the first flights start landing in the morning. Then casually make your way out of the airport with the early arrivals.
posted by philotes at 7:21 AM on July 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yea, 10 years or so ago I would have said go for it. SF is just a very different city now. A lot of the homeless there are former residents of the apartments they are camping in front of. It's just a bad scene.

If you can't spend any money, just sleep at the airport, or ride one of the late night buses (designated by an "L" after the number) in a loop all night.

If you want a cheap adventure, book a bunk at the Green Tortoise Hostel. Safe, clean, usually some free food in the kitchen, and you can meet fellow travelers from all over.
posted by ethical_caligula at 8:03 AM on July 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm sorry I even need to ask this, but in this timeline I feel obliged to ask, how many of the people recommending I sleep in the secured area are or pass as white?
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:16 AM on July 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe try looking for a 24-hour Korean spa, the entrance fee is typically lower than a hostel and there are communal sleeping areas where you can get some good sleep in a safe setting
posted by gin and biscuits at 12:08 PM on July 15, 2018

I’m pretty clearly white and have no idea what the situation would be at SFO if I wasn’t. However, if you’re having to deal with that then I would like to double down on my advice to skip roughing it in San Francisco.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm white. I usually see a mix of people late night in airports. Honestly, this is a very common practice all over the world. can't possibly think you'll do better with cops called on you by a pissed-off white property-owner in the middle of the night, can you? Or with a homeless guy of another ethnicity who deems you to have stolen his spot? From your Asks, you live in NYC; I'm genuinely puzzled as to why you think sleeping outdoors in the city is a workable idea for anyone with options. The odds of your getting beaten up by someone who thinks you're infringing on their turf or shot by a cop in the middle of the night, while not extraordinarily high, are way higher than the odds of your being disappeared to Guantanamo.
posted by praemunire at 1:27 PM on July 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'd recommend a bed in a hostel dorm.

I have stayed at this hostel many, many times, and have never had a bad experience at it: Hostelling Intl. City Center. You don't need to be a HI member to stay there. It's safe, clean, and there's lockers to store your stuff. It's also very centrally located, so it's easy to get to public transpo, to catch your bus. There's also showers and bathtubs if you want to wash up or soak. The best thing is that they serve breakfast, with all you can eat pancakes, eggs, or both, for $2 or so. This also includes coffee/tea, milk, cereal, toast, fruit, etc.

The bed may seem pricy, but getting a filling breakfast as well should make up for it.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:29 PM on July 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Not white, but I'm yellow, not brown.

Sleeping overnight at large international airports is completely fine. The janitorial staff just do their thing around sleepers.
posted by porpoise at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm not white and I would definitely sleep overnight at SFO. I haven't slept at SFO particularly but I have done so at other airports and its been fine. You really think you'll do better in a public park as a non-white person than at an airport? I'd take my chances at the airport over a public US park any day.
posted by driedmango at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm not white, and I sleep in airports when necessary / want to save on 1 nights accommodation costs. It's safe, quiet (you do get cleaners coming through sometimes, though), and there are usually other sleeping travellers around too. If you're worried about being hassled, just find a cluster of sleeping travellers and make yourself comfortable in yelling proximity to them.
posted by travellingincognito at 3:49 PM on July 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm a brown female, and I have slept overnight at SFO when my international flight from Europe landed at ~10 PM and my connecting flight to the east coast wasn't until 8 AM the following morning. I didn't leave the airport because I was exhausted and just wanted to crash. Made my way from the international terminal to the domestic departures area and went to sleep, no issues. The janitorial staff cleaned around me.
posted by Everydayville at 1:11 PM on July 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

The International Terminal at SFO has a service called Freshen Up which provides rooms equipped with a bed, free WiFi, desk, mirror. Showers are available for an additional cost. $120 for the night.

Several hotels in the area around SFO offer free shuttle services. You can search for prices in the usual spots. Pre-booked hotels on Priceline, etc can be cheap.

AirBnB has a couple of bunk bed style arrangements listed near SFO. You would need to take a Lyft or Uber to get there and back, but it's cheap. Go to, enter "San Francisco Airport" and drop the price slider down to whatever you can pay.
posted by blob at 7:59 PM on July 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The only time I have been bothered sleeping in aiports was when I pitched my entire tent indoors in front of a non-obvious loading door. Security guards waited until the shift change to wake me up, since no one was using the door until then.
posted by bradbane at 11:15 PM on July 18, 2018

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