San Francisco Chronicle, May 31, 2020
By Phil Matier
It’s been four weeks since San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced an ambitious plan to clean up and slow the flood of homeless tents in the Tenderloin. And while there have been some small improvements, there are more tents that ever.
Take a look at the count.
When Breed unveiled the Tenderloin plan on May 6, the nonprofit group Urban Alchemy, which provides services to homeless camps, counted 387 tents and makeshift structures lining the sidewalks of the area bounded by Market, Geary, Mason and Polk streets.
On Thursday, the count was 448, an increase of 61 tents and structures.
“It is still a disaster area,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who lives in the neighborhood.
Jeff Kositsky, who leads the Healthy Streets Operations Center and is overseeing the Tenderloin plan, said that “with work” the city may be able to find room for controlled encampments for about 100 tents in small parking lots and alleyways scattered throughout the neighborhood.
A city-sanctioned camp for eight tents opened on a parking lot at 180 Jones St. last week.
But that would still leave about 300 tents on Tenderloin sidewalks. That’s partly the result of the city admitting fewer people into its 1,200-bed shelter system so that residents can be physically distanced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the shelters’ close quarters.
The Homeward Bound program, which normally sends two to three homeless people per day back to their families in other locations, is now averaging two people per week.
“The mayor is working with the Department of Public Health on a plan to safely reopen more beds in our shelters and Navigation Centers, with increased testing and other safety measures,” said Jeff Cretan, Breed’s spokesman. “These sites are key for getting people indoors and off the streets.”
In the meantime, the thinking appears to be that, for better or worse, the tents are the best alternative to the shelters and may help contain the spread of the coronavirus among the homeless.
And that at this point, minimizing the spread of the virus and saving lives is the city’s top priority.
“Hopefully, we can get things to a better place” in the months to come, Kositsky said.
In the meantime, rows of tents continue to block the sidewalks. Drug dealing and open drug use remain rampant, and there appears to be little regard by many for the social distancing and masking — now mandatory in San Francisco — called for during the pandemic.
Another problem is that the homeless, many suffering from mental, drug or alcohol problems, often lack the desire or wherewithal to go somewhere else.
“We call it the Tenderlife,” neighborhood resident Craig Butler said as he walked down Hyde Street on his way to a corner market Thursday morning. “Half the people here are half dead and with no place to go. I’m lucky. I have a place to live.”
Breed announced the Tenderloin cleanup plan two days after neighborhood business owners, residents and UC Hastings College of the Law, which is located in the Tenderloin, filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court. The suit seeks to force the city to clean up the tents, garbage and drug dealing that have worsened significantly during the coronavirus pandemic and put the neighborhood’s families, businesses and children at risk.
“This would never be allowed to happen in more affluent neighborhoods, UC Hastings Executive Director of Operations Rhiannon Bailard said. “The city’s safety plan just further institutionalizes the Tenderloin as a containment zone. They might as well just put up gates.”
But there have been some improvements in the Tenderloin and other neighborhoods in recent weeks.
More portable toilets have been set up throughout the neighborhood, a section of Golden Gate Avenue in front of St. Anthony Dining Room was blocked off to encourage social distancing, and police and Homeless Outreach Teams encourage the homeless daily to keep their tents at least 6 feet apart.
Public Works continues to clean the streets and sidewalks regularly.
The city has placed 1,140 of the more vulnerable homeless in hotel rooms, and a sanctioned camp for 90 tents was opened on Fulton Street after the area was overrun by the homeless in tents along the walkway of the Asian Art Museum.
“Fulton was a nightmare, and now it is a place of healing and refuge,” Kositsky said.
The Fulton Street encampment — within sight of City Hall — is clean, fenced and well staffed.
But while it’s only a block away, it’s not in the Tenderloin.
Another sanctioned camp, this one for 40 tents, opened in the Haight on Friday, and work has begun on a third at Everett Middle School on Church Street to serve the Castro.
Again, not in the Tenderloin.
Some have suggested opening safe campsites in plazas bordering the Tenderloin, like Civic Center Plaza or Union Square.
But if the continued presence of police and park ranger squad cars posted across from City Hall is any indication, Civic Center Plaza is off the table. And most people would agree there is little chance the city would open a homeless encampment at Union Square, in the heart of the city’s tourist and shopping district.
On Thursday, the mayor announced a phased reopening the city, including plans to relax restrictions on restaurants and other businesses.
“For us in the Tenderloin, it feels like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. Reopening to what?” Bailard said. “Do we expect customers of these businesses to run the gauntlet if residents are scared to do so? Do we expect children to navigate that sidewalk and climb over those tents?”
Good questions all.