San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 20, 2020
By Trisha Thadani
As San Francisco struggles to build enough housing and shelter for its swelling homeless population, the city is looking to sanctioned tent encampments with services — food, social workers and hand washing stations — as a temporary option.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman plans to introduce legislation Tuesday that would force the homeless department to figure out how many so-called safe sleeping villages it should build to meet demand. The department would have 18 months to create the sites.
The legislation is an example of how elected officials and city workers are scrambling to address a massive homeless population, which advocates say deserve more far more resources. Residents have also complained that the crisis creates public safety and health challenges, while struggling businesses say the those living on the streets have scared off customers.
Such sanctioned tent encampments are not a solution for those living on the streets, Mandelman said, but they’re the most realistic path forward in a city that has been painfully slow to build new housing and shelter amid a homeless crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. But the dearth of other permanent options shows the city’s inability to make meaningful progress on a crisis that has long existed in San Francisco.
“If we want to get a handle on our street conditions and the needs of people for whom we don’t have shelter or permanent supportive housing, we have to focus more directly on giving them a place to be until we have something better for them,” he said.
The city has at least 5,000 unsheltered residents — likely thousands more — and only about 200 are currently in safe sleeping sites. Creating more safe sleeping sites could prompt huge pushback from neighborhoods. Some residents have already protested the sites.
The legislation could take on more urgency in the coming months as the city winds down its homeless hotel program and begins moving out its 2,000 guests. The goal is to place people into housing, but many may just end up in shelters or safe sleeping villages. Mayor London Breed secured funding for 1,500 units of permanent supportive Housing units in the upcoming budget — not enough to meet demand.
Even though safe sleeping villages offer food, hygiene stations and social services, it could be a jarring transition to move from a hotel room with four walls and a bed into a tent. The sites have also rankled some nearby residents, who say they have added to the blight, violence and drug use near their homes.
“It is really sad that we don’t have the resources to do better by those people,” Mandelman said. But the safe sleeping villages “are temporary. We need to get people somewhere better.”
The crux of Mandelman’s legislation is to create an option for every unsheltered homeless person, other than the sidewalk. While he said the city should still focus on building more affordable and permanent supportive housing, his legislation would direct the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to fill in the gaps with safe sleeping sites. It is unclear how much it would cost.
There are currently three such sites around the city — outside of City Hall on Fulton Street, at 730 Stanyan St. and at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. Another at Everett Middle School closed shortly after it opened.
The city rushed to open the first safe sleeping site at the beginning of the pandemic, when shelters were closed to new residents and capacity was cut so people could social distance. That left people camping on the streets and crowding sidewalks in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Castro and Haight-Ashbury.
Safe sleeping villages were a relatively quick, easy and affordable option for the city. In contrast, shelters can cost millions of dollars to construct and operate while affordable housing can cost at least $700,000 a unit to build. Both can take years to build.
Lena Miller, whose organization Urban Alchemy runs the safe sleeping site outside of City Hall, said the sites are safer and more humane than just on the street. People know they have a place to go at the end of the day, and also consistent access to food, bathrooms and showers, she said. They don’t have to worry about their stuff getting stolen or the city moving them from their current location, she said. Some of the outdoor sites are also cleaner and offer more privacy than a traditional congregate shelter, she said.
She did not have any data on where people in the site have moved onto, but said, anecdotally, social workers have helped connect many with city-funded bus tickets to other cities where they have friends of family. They have also helped people get other services, ranging from new IDs to applying for housing.
According to a survey of 584 homeless people conducted by the Coalition on Homelessness between June 3 and Aug. 30, 58% of people who responded said they prefer a “legal free campsite” to existing shelters.
“There is a huge dynamic that changes when you just lock in safety for people, and then you add in food and hygine,” Miller said.
Still, some residents are protesting the plan.
Six neighborhood groups near the Upper Haight, where there’s a safe sleeping site at 730 Stanyan, sent an Oct. 20 letter to City Hall leaders, including Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Dean Preston, arguing the conditions around the site are untenable.
“The behavior and conditions on Haight Street suggest that the (safe sleeping village) is not a success for its unhoused residents, and it’s certainly not a success for residents and merchants in the surrounding area,” the letter said. The groups urged the city to wind down the site when it was planned to end in November, and to find “suitable” solutions for the residents.
But others, like Mark Nagel, co-founder of RescueSF, a group of residents that supports Mandelman’s legislation, said the city needs to help people get off the sidewalks.
“Anything is better than letting these people suffer on the (sidewalk),” said Nagel, who lives in the Marina.
While Miller, of Urban Alchemy, said that it would — in theory — be better for people to be inside, that’s not always true. Many don’t like the squalor of some of the city’s Single Room Occupancy hotels and the disorganization and lack of privacy in some of the city’s shelters.
The safe sleeping villages at least give people another option — even if it isn’t ideal.
“The safe sleeping village model is not the model that we are going to end up with, it is the first iteration,” she said. “This is not the solution where we can say that this model is perfect, but for now I think it’s necessary.”