San Francisco embraces first tiny cabin village for homeless people with plans for SoMa

San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 2021

By Kevin Fagan

After years of resistance, San Francisco is finally jumping into the tiny homes technique for sheltering homeless people with plans to install them on two parking lots between Market and Mission streets, The Chronicle has learned.

The lots at 33 Gough St. have been used since December as a city-sanctioned “safe sleeping village,” holding 44 tents for unhoused people while they get counseling aimed at routing them into permanent homes. Those tents will be replaced by late fall with 70 tiny homes, dubbed cabins, similar to those already in use for years in Oakland, the Peninsula and San Jose.

Each 64-square-foot cabin will have a steel frame, 2-inch-thick walls, heating systems, a desk, a bed and a window. The site will get improved bathrooms, storage spaces and a dining area.

The $1.7 million cost of building and installing the cabins, along with the dining and other facilities, will be paid for by the money raised by the nonprofits DignityMoves, and Tipping Point Community. The cabins will remain for 18 months, when the lease the city signed for using the parking lots as outdoor shelter spaces runs out.

The cabins are a pilot program only, and this test is just the latest in a series of new techniques being tried by the city in light of the spiking homeless population during the coronavirus pandemic. Bolstered by new tax and federal funding that will bring San Francisco’s homelessness funding to about $800 million for each of the next two years, program and policy leaders are considering buying more properties for homeless housing, placing people in vacant apartments around the city, and opening a safe RV site for 150 vehicles.

“So many homeless people don’t want to go into congregate shelters, and the tents have been a good outdoor alternative, but these cabins are a next big step,” said Elizabeth Funk, founder and head of DignityMoves, which is the developer of the cabin site. “When you have your own room and a door that locks, it makes a big difference.“I believe when you give someone that kind of dignity you can get with your own room and a locking door, you’re keying them up for more success,” Funk said.

Several of those now living in the tents at 33 Gough Street said they are excited at the prospect of trading their fabric walls for solid ones. Each will be offered a spot in the cabin community when it opens, officials said.

“To come home to something that actually feels like a home would be so great,” said Benjamin Longmore, 36, who has been at the safe sleeping village since it opened and is studying to be a poverty issues counselor. “A door you can lock, some heat so you're not cold at night — I would love that.

“I'm trying to really move on to the next step in my life, and I need all the help I can get.”

A few tents over, 29-year-old Jacqueline Smith said she’s still getting over the trauma of living on the streets for several years before moving into the safe sleeping village a month ago.

“I never felt safe outside, and this place is a big improvement over the street, but I would really love to have an actual door, and a window I could look out of without being exposed,” she said. “Having a place with walls would make you feel more like you’re heading back to normal, which is what I so very much want.”

Like many at the village, she said agreed to move into the tent site after being homeless off and on for 10 years because “it felt a lot more secure than an inside, typical shelter, especially during a pandemic where you catch the disease by being so close to so many other people.”

Oakland has served more than 600 people with similar tiny home encampments since 2017, and city officials say about half moved into more permanent housing after becoming stabilized. The cities of San Jose and Mountain View, in partnership with several agencies and nonprofits, have created more than 640 such units in the past two years, also used as transitional housing.

San Francsico had always been resistant to installing tiny homes rather than congregate shelters because of the severe shortage of open, unused space in the city. But the pandemic forced officials to be more flexible, and sheltering people in outdoor tents was safer than placing them in confined, indoor congregate shelters.

The city now operates five such sites, containing 220 tents and dubbed “safe sleeping villages.” Officials have been criticized for the relatively high cost of each site, $61,000 a year per tent, and they said they have been scrutinizing that cost to bring it down.

The cabins are seen as an improvement on the tent model. They will also lower the cost of the site, since the 70 cabins will altogether cost about the same to run as the total of 44 tents.

In an email to The Chronicle, Mayor London Breed said the cabins were a promising method for giving people a safe, dignified place to live while waiting for scarce permanent housing to open up.

“As we move forward, our goal is not to go back to where we were, but instead to use the lessons learned during COVID to move this City forward and make a real difference for our residents,” she said in the email. “We know we need more housing, but we also need temporary places for people to get off the street and on the path to housing, and we want to test this new strategy out for its effectiveness.”

Several people who work or live in the area seemed to embrace the cabin idea, citing the lack of trouble associated with the tent site.

“That place (the tent site) has been really quiet — organized and tight,” said Allen Beard, who works in a construction office across the street. “There’ve been no problems. They have good security, and actually help keep the area safer.”

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