At least one street in SF’s Tenderloin has been cleaned up, but there’s still a problem

San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 2020

By Phil Matier


It took months of complaining, but residents living on San Francisco’s Larch Street can finally sleep through the night without hearing people fighting, or enter and exit their garages without coming face to face with a drug deal going down.


“They finally cleared out the alleyway. It’s great. I can walk into my place without having to worry,” said five-year resident Mason Feldman, whose basement window faces the block-long alley near Opera Plaza.


Larch was one of dozens of streets in and around the Tenderloin where the city undertook a massive encampment takedown and cleaning in recent weeks. The cleanups were prompted in part by neighborhood complaints and lawsuits claiming the streets had become unsafe and unsanitary.


“We helped hundreds of unsheltered people find a safe place to sleep and also thousands of residents who were living with the encampments,” said Healthy Streets Operation Center Manager Jeff Kositsky, who lead the effort.


More than 300 tents were taken down in the Tenderloin, and 500 homeless people moved into hotel rooms leased by the city. Another 1,400 to 1,500 homeless from all around the city who were either in shelters or tents were moved into hotel rooms as well, bringing the total number in hotels to about 2,000.


The cost: about $250 a night per room — that includes leases, staff, security, meals, laundry, supplies and cleaning. That’s a total of about $500,000 a night or about $15 million a month. The city hopes to recover 75% of the hotel costs through federal coronavirus emergency funds.


But for residents in the Tenderloin and on Larch Street the change was worth every penny.


“I can’t tell you how many people from different walks of life have said it’s like the difference between day and night. They feel like they can go out again,” Tenderloin Housing Clinic Director Randy Shaw said.


The move, sought by the Board of Supervisors and homeless advocates, was not without its embarrassments.


Early on, the hotel program drew national attention when it came out that homeless people with substance abuse problems, who were being quarantined in medical hotels managed by the Department of Public Health were being provided alcohol, cannabis and methadone by local nonprofit service agencies.


The thinking was that it was better to keep the medically quarantined homeless people content and confined to their rooms rather than risk them going back out on the street in search of a score.


Overall, however, there have been few complaints about homeless people living in hotels, although privately some hotel owners have complained about syringes clogging up the toilets.


The next step is going to be even bigger and will last for years.


Mayor London Breed recently announced a “Homelessness Recovery Plan” with the goal of using federal and local tax money along with philanthropic funds to house 12,500 homeless people in permanent supportive housing at a cost of more than $30 million a year.


“And we will be available to continue to care for those that that need support for the rest of their lives,” Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Interim Director Abigail Stewart-Kahn said.


In other words, the city basically will be adopting the homeless.


Meanwhile, in the Haight, the Bayview and hard-core areas like Willow Street, just outside of the Tenderloin, there are still a lot of tents. And therein lies the challenge.


“Maybe it’s a little better than it was, but we are not going to be able to put everyone on the street into a hotel room,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, where tents also continue to be a problem. “There are still too many tents, and too many mentally ill and seriously drug addicted people who are not getting the help they need.”


Stewart-Kahn agreed that, while effective, hotels and permanent housing are only part of the solution.


“We have seen that when we offer the right services, over 90% of those in the Tenderloin said ‘yes.’ Some people are not ready to say ‘yes’ to help, but they still need care and compassion,” she said.


But for residents of Larch Street and the Tenderloin, even a bit of change is welcome relief after months of feeling like they were being held hostage by the campers at their doorsteps.


Although for tenant Feldman, the Larch Street cleanup came just a little bit late.


“I gave my notice to move out two days before the cleanup,” Feldman said. “I’m headed to Oakland.”

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