San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 18, 2021
By Mallory Moench
The debate over why the city killed plans at the last minute for a controversial drop-in center for homeless youth in the Haight-Ashbury continued Thursday when city officials defended the abrupt move during a contentious hearing.
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said it pulled the plug last month because of a lack of funding for the center, slated for the vacant former McDonald’s site at Haight and Stanyan streets, and a shift to devote limited staff resources to permanent housing.
But Supervisor Dean Preston, who grilled the department’s top officials, protested that the reversal was “never about funding.” He argued the money he’d allocated in the budget for the drop-in center wasn’t expected to cover the full cost — which ended up being more than three times the amount — and he’d offered to raise the rest of the funds. He also accused Mayor London Breed of influencing the outcome, citing her meeting with a neighborhood community association that opposed the project.
The mayor’s spokesperson, Andy Lynch, didn’t respond directly Thursday when asked whether Breed swayed the decision, but stressed the lack of funding and need for fiscal responsibility.
“We have an unprecedented amount of new resources available and with that new funding comes even more responsibility to ensure that when we spend funds that those projects actually have an impact,” he said.
The city plans to spend $1 billion, most from voter-approved business tax Proposition C, to tackle the homelessness crisis over the next two years.
The city announced it wouldn’t move ahead with the center just two weeks before it was expected to throw open its doors. The plan called for a temporary center with bathrooms, hand-washing stations, toilets and staff to provide referrals to food and housing resources for homeless young people. The site is eventually slated for affordable housing, but construction isn’t expected to start before 2023.
But some neighbors rallied against the center, saying it would attract more homeless people to the area, though it was intended to help those already living in the neighborhood.
Homeless director Shireen McSpadden told Preston Thursday that neighborhood opposition didn’t kill the project and said the department informed Breed of its decision before the mayor’s meeting with the neighborhood group.
“I’m concerned that we very much need to focus on housing placement and housing expansion,” McSpadden said. “Our staff are overextended. ... We’re starting to try to pull back on some of the things we thought we could do this year.”
Breed told the board in its meeting last week that not all neighbors were on board with the plan and homeless providers needed to be accountable for spending city funding wisely, saying that “accountability for programming of homeless youth in the Haight is very much problematic.”
Lynch did not respond to a request for clarification Thursday about what was problematic, although McSpadden said she didn’t have any concerns about the provider chosen for the drop-in center.
The city is currently paying $27,000 a month for security to guard the site. No other concrete plan exists for interim use of the site.
Thursday’s hearing was the latest example of Preston, sometimes joined by other supervisors, clashing with Breed and her departments over how the city should invest its massive budget to tackle homelessness.
That includes debates over pulling from city reserves to buy small buildings where residents are at risk of displacement and shooting down market-rate housing with more than 100 affordable units because of gentrification concerns. Preston also urged the city to put the brakes on its proposed purchase of a Japantown hotel for permanent supportive housing because of pushback from the community, which feared the loss of a tourist hotel would hurt small businesses. Preston instead pushed the city to buy another hotel in his district, but it’s unclear if the department will move forward with that suggestion.
McSpadden pointed out Thursday that the city has made strides in helping homeless youth, including recently opening a navigation center for unhoused young people and acquiring two buildings for permanent supportive housing for that population.
The drama over the doomed drop-in center began in June, when Preston set aside $223,000 from the budget to help run the site over two years. He expected the amount would cover only staffing, although McSpadden said initially she thought it would pay for the entire program.
Mary Howe, director of the Homeless Youth Alliance which had been chosen to run the proposed site, said she thought portable bathrooms from the Safe Sleeping Site she’d operated until June at the same location would remain, which is why she didn’t advocate for more budget funding.
The homelessness department said it sought help from the Department of Public Works to provide one of its bathrooms at the site, but none were available. But around the same time in September the department realized the dollars came up short, leaders also reassessed priorities, deciding to focus on permanent housing, deputy director Emily Cohen said.
Preston continued the hearing to a future date to get more answers.
“I see this as the latest chapter in an ongoing betrayal of the Haight,” he said. “Services work, and we have seen that.”