San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2020
By Dominic Fracassa
A group of residents, merchants and property owners in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is suing San Francisco in federal court to block the city’s effort to set up a sanctioned tent encampment at 730 Stanyan St.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city is working to establish “safe sleeping” sites, where the homeless can have a place to sleep and basic services while maintaining social distancing in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But the plan to put around 40 tents at 730 Stanyan, a site formerly occupied by a McDonald’s restaurant that is now owned by the city, engendered swift backlash from people who live or work nearby, largely over concerns of health risks. Some opponents said they were deeply upset that the encampment would be placed on such a dense, high-traffic area.
Such concerns about public health underpin the lawsuit filed Wednesday, filed by the Concerned Citizens of the Haight neighborhood group.
Joe Goldmark, managing partner at Amoeba Music, confirmed that the store was a member of the group in an email to The Chronicle. Goldmark said the store was “strongly opposed” to the Stanyan Street site.
“We, the merchants on Haight Street, have long been on the front lines dealing with the collateral issues of the homeless, who unfortunately at times have drug, alcohol and/or psychological issues. Establishing this camp next to us exacerbates these problems exponentially,” he said. Amoeba Music is adjacent to the McDonald’s site.
Harmeet Dhillon, the San Francisco attorney representing the group, has also sued the state on behalf of two pastors in Riverside County and two parishioners in San Bernardino County to demand that California lift its temporary ban on in-person religious services that is a result of the pandemic. On Monday, the state announced that churches can reopen, within limits, though they remain closed in Bay Area counties.
“The governor and the mayor told us we can’t go to church, we can’t go to work, we can’t go to school — or do hardly anything. But it’s safe to put a contagion unit in the middle of the street,” Dhillon said. “It’s just contrary to science, common sense, zoning, due process and the rights of the people who live there.”
The suit suggests that the city does not intend to provide for adequate sanitation at the site, like installing portable toilets rather than flush toilets, with no published schedule for when they’d be cleaned. The group is also concerned that more than one person may be able to live in one tent, potentially increasing the number of people at the site.
“The city made this decision despite several alternatives that are many times larger than the 730 Stanyan St. lot and/or provide more resources to campers and/or are owned by the city’s Recreation and Parks department,” the suit says.
City officials have said that other locations, including Recreation and Park Department properties, were considered but ultimately discarded for various reasons. The parking lot at Kezar Stadium was considered, for example, but rejected in part because it is being used as a parking lot for UCSF medical workers, an arrangement that’s also generating money for the city.
Safe sleeping sites “are an emergency measure to help people experiencing homelessness move off of crowded sidewalks to help prevent the spread of the virus,” said Francis Zamora, a spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which has a role in choosing locations for the camps. The first one opened recently between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum in the Civic Center.
“These sites are short-term, temporary areas where health and safety standards are implemented and services like food, water, sanitation and health care are provided,” he said.
The opponents also said that the temporary encampment would undo the “hard-won” victory neighborhood residents have won in trying to stabilize and clean up 730 Stanyan, which City Attorney Dennis Herrera declared a public nuisance in 2015, when it was still a McDonald’s restaurant. The site was a locus of illegal activity in the neighborhood, prompting police calls for drug sales, fights, assaults, auto burglaries and dog attacks.
“We will review the lawsuit, and we expect to defend the city’s sensible decision to move forward with the safe-sleeping site,” said John Coté, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office.
The coronavirus is easily transmitted among people living in close quarters, but city officials have made assurances that the site would be safer than the alternative — people living in tents on the street. With the city limiting the homeless shelter population to slow the spread of the virus, tents have mushroomed on streets and sidewalks in the Haight, the Tenderloin, the Castro and other neighborhoods.
The site is supposed to open next week.
Dhillon declined to say whether she intends to file a request for a preliminary injunction to halt the setup of the site. To stop preparation of the site, Dhillon would need to prove that nearby residents would suffer irreparable harm from the camp and that the group is likely to prevail in court on the merits of its claims — a high legal bar.
Last year. nearby residents opposed to a Navigation Center homeless shelter on Seawall Lot 330 on the Embarcadero also sued the city to block its construction, but ultimately failed.
Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents the Haight-Ashbury, said the city “would not be deterred from creating a safe sleeping site by an anonymous, vocal minority that’s not representative” of the broader community’s acceptance of the encampment.
“I think every neighborhood and every district needs to do its part in this crisis, and our neighborhood is no exception.”