San Francisco Chronicle, June 3, 2020
By Dominic Fracassa
Two San Francisco city departments have identified 42 parcels of public land that could be used as sites for sanctioned tent camps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city’s Real Estate Division and the Recreation and Park Department produced two lists of potential locations for what the city calls “safe sleeping sites” at the request of Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer.
The sites are intended to provide safe, organized spaces for homeless people to camp and have access to basic services while maintaining sufficient, safe distance from one another. With the city’s homeless shelters maintaining strict quotas on guests to reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus, tents have mushroomed on the streets of the Tenderloin, Castro and Haight-Ashbury.
“Rather than keeping people crowded on our sidewalks, this is a much better option for the public health and safety of both our housed and unhoused residents,” Fewer said. “As I’ve said before, this crisis requires us to consider all possible options, and this list of potential locations will help city leaders and departments work with our communities to establish more safe sleeping sites.”
The sites inventoried by the two departments represent only locations that officials think could be used for sanctioned encampments based on specific criteria. There are numerous caveats — like neighborhood resistance and existing contracts for the site’s current uses — that could render some of them unusable.
To date, the city has opened two sanctioned camps. The first opened on Fulton Street between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum in the Civic Center. The second is at 730 Stanyan St., the site of a former McDonald’s restaurant that the city bought in the hope of eventually transforming the site into affordable housing.
A group of merchants and residents who live and work near the Stanyan Street site are suing the city in federal court to close the encampment.
“If these initial safe-sleeping villages are successful, we need to be prepared to do more. The human need is vast, and our neighborhoods are getting impatient,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who authored a resolution in April urging the city to turn empty parking lots and other spaces into sanctioned encampments during the pandemic.
The new potential sites were selected with input from Jeff Kositsky, the city’s former director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing who now heads up the Healthy Streets Operations Center.
Each parcel had to be between 30,000 and 100,000 square feet, be available for temporary use as a safe sleeping site, be on level and dry open space, and have access to nearby or on-site utilities, like power, water, sewer and lighting.
But beyond physical attributes and proximity to utilities, city officials will have to weigh the costs of setting up an encampment at each site and whether each location is being used for other purposes. To use a particular parking lot, for example, the city may need to void a parking contract with a business or other agency, which would likely incur penalties.
The Real Estate Division returned with 34 potential sites, including parking lots, open spaces and other parcels operated by the Port of San Francisco, City College, the Public Utilities Commission and other city agencies that would have to agree to their use. Twenty-six of the sites are on land operated by the San Francisco Unified School District.
Rec and Park returned with eight potential properties, all but one of them — a plaza on the Embarcadero at Market and Steuart streets — are parking lots. The Marina Green parking lot was provided as a potential site, as was the Ocean Beach lot on the Great Highway.
Fewer’s proposal to seek out possible encampment sites on park property drew a deluge of criticism from concerned residents, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who objected to the idea of putting homelessness camps or services in parks, particularly Golden Gate Park. None of the sites selected by the department are tied to Golden Gate Park.
Sarah Madland, a spokeswoman for the parks department, said the sites were selected to meet social distancing requirements, aren’t being used for another element of the city’s pandemic response — like child care — won’t jeopardize landscapes or park infrastructure and “do not curtail San Franciscans’ opportunity to enjoy their parks — particularly at a time when the benefits of nature and active recreation are critical to our mental and physical health.”