San Francisco Chronicle, April 19, 2020
By Sam Whiting
Attached to one of five or six tents on Waller Street in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is a sign that reads: “Mayor Breed: We will gladly trade this tent for a hotel room!” That is asking a lot, but the people in the tents are also asking for less. They want to move their tents just a block west, into the parking lot at Kezar Stadium. Haight-Ashbury advocates for the homeless community are pushing the city to turn the stadium lot into a legal tent site that could fit as many as 100 tents in spaces marked to ensure social distancing. The site, they say, could offer access to the restroom facilities that include hot water and showers in Kezar Pavilion, where both the San Francisco 49ers and visiting teams once had their locker rooms. “A legal tent camp site is something that we have been talking about at Kezar for years because you would not have to build infrastructure,” said Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness. “Maybe since we are in a pandemic we will finally move forward on this because, right now, there is not one place in the city where you can go in order to legally place a tent.”
The need is urgent because the city has lifted enforcement on placing tents on sidewalks. Tents are even being encouraged as a way for homeless people to maintain social distancing. Instead of confiscating tents, police have been advising their residents to set up their shelters 6 feet apart in places were the tents are not blocking access to a home or business. One obvious place is the sidewalk outside the Department of Motor Vehicles, where 20 tents are on Broderick Street and another six are around the corner on Oak. In all, there are maybe 30 new tents that have sprouted in the area around the Panhandle and the Haight. While residents tend to be more tolerant during the emergency situation, there is enough concern about the proliferation of sidewalk campers in the neighborhood that District Five Supervisor Dean Preston held a Zoom town hall meeting Friday on the homeless topic. Fifty or 60 residents were in attendance. “The residents of the district understand why people who are homeless would have the need for a tent,” Preston said Sunday. “Everyone is unhappy with the current situation where there is no city plan for a safe tent area.” Preston predicted that by Tuesday he would endorse a location for the city to sanction a tent site in his district, which includes the Kezar site and the DMV, which has been closed during the pandemic and used only for a Sunday farmers’ market. The DMV parking lot would seem obvious since that is where the greatest number of tents are, but it is a state-owned property, which would add another level of bureaucracy. Some, particularly residents of Cole Valley, have suggested the faraway Panhandle, Preston said, but it is too close to major traffic arteries. The Kezar parking lot is also problematic because it is in Golden Gate Park, and the city has been resistant to opening any part of the park to tent encampments. This doesn’t make sense to Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness. “Think back to the earthquake of 1906,” she said. “Golden Gate Park (was one of the locations) where the city set up its emergency response. There were tents and even small buildings. There is the space for social distancing.” A request for comment from Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, was referred to the press office for the city’s Emergency Operation Center. “The city is currently assessing the feasibility of resources and impact of numerous potential safe sleep sites/sanctioned camping sites,” said department spokesperson Max Barnes. “No policy decision has been made regarding whether we’ll go forward.” One reason for the proliferation of tents in District 5 is that Christin Evans, owner of the Booksmith on Haight Street and a community leader, has been giving them away. Evans teamed with Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness and put out a call through social media channels for tents to be donated and distributed citywide. “Before COVID there were no visible tents in the Haight,” she said. As many as 1,000 shelters, mostly Coleman 2-Person Sundome Camping Tents, were purchased online and donated in boxes, and have been given out on Ashbury Street, half a block up from Haight. In her Honda HRV, Evans made four or five trips to Hunters Point, 48 boxed tents per load.
Evans said she personally gave out about 60, though only about a dozen have been set up in the Haight. They are easy to spot because they came with the signs that implored Breed for a hotel room instead. Evans has seen these signs on the tents in the Haight, in Hunters Point and the Tenderloin. “I hope signs on the tents raise awareness that people have limited options of shelter,” said Evans, who is aware that there is precedent for considering Kezar Pavilion in an emergency situation. During the ferocious winter of 1998, Mayor Willie Brown proposed the site as a winter shelter with 1,000 cots. Evans said most of the tent people in the Haight are “transitional youth” between the ages of 20 and 30. She and Mary Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance went out and conducted a survey and found that the vast majority said they would move to a hotel room, an offer that has not been forthcoming. “Not a single person from the street has actually been housed in a hotel room in the city,” said Supervisor Preston. Absent a hotel room, they’d take a tent in a place sanctioned by the city where they would be left alone by authorities. “That is something that we have been asking for since the first week of shelter in place,” said Evans, who noted that the locker rooms at Kezar Pavilion were recently renovated by a pro soccer franchise. Plus there is space in the parking lot for portable restrooms and showers. “Tents at Kezar would solve the problem.”