San Francisco needs to designate safe sleeping sites for the homeless

By Rafael Mandelman and Carolyn Kenady | on November 20, 2020

Photo: Nick Otto / Special To The Chronicle A row of homeless tents are seen in an alley way in the Tenderloin in San Francisco on April 7. On Pride Sunday, a woman in her early 20s emerged from one of the tents that had clustered on the northern side of 16th Street across from the Eureka Valley Library fully engulfed in flames. Before those gathered around her were able to put out the fire, she would be burned on over 70% of her body, her life forever changed.

The scene was horrifying for those who witnessed it, but not entirely exceptional or unexpected in San Francisco in 2020. Conditions for unsheltered and unhoused people in San Francisco are tragic and intolerable. They had been for a long time, as any resident or visitor over the past 20 years can attest, but the situation unquestionably worsened during shelter-in-place.

The city’s non-enforcement of laws against street camping brought a temporary end to the weary routine of encampments getting cleared in response to neighbor complaints, only to reappear blocks or even feet away. But the results of that non-enforcement — unregulated encampments sprouting up across the eastern half of the city, and growing and growing — were unbearable for neighborhoods and dangerous for those in the encampments.

So where does that leave us? The city has now resumed “encampment resolution” activities, in a limited way and only where alternative shelter placements are available. Most San Franciscans would agree that sweeps are not a solution to homelessness, but allowing unhoused individuals, often suffering from serious addictions and other behavioral health issues, to camp out on our sidewalks unprotected is not an act of compassion. It is a dereliction of duty.

It is time to speak plainly about street homelessness. Let’s start with what we all know today:

1) San Francisco cannot house every unhoused person;

2) San Francisco has never managed to provide shelter beds for every unhoused person who will accept one, and that challenge is all the greater now when congregate shelters risk accelerating the spread of COVID, and

3) if we are to end camping in our neighborhoods, our laws and our humanity require that we find alternative safe spaces for our unhoused population. We need a coherent citywide plan to get those on our streets into safe places and on a path out of homelessness. Back in April, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution urging the city to pursue safe sleeping sites as one strategy for achieving that goal. The idea is to identify vacant lots and re-direct campers to those lots. Ideally, a safe sleeping site can function as a sort of pop-up outdoor navigation center, with portable toilets, showers, security, food and other services. Since April the city has opened several of these sites to test the concept, but has yet to fully commit to more than pilot efforts. The 2020-21 budget more than doubles homelessness spending while only funding at most a few hundred safe sleeping site placements.

Over the next two years, under the Mayor’s Homelessness Recovery Plan, San Francisco will spend more than $500 million to acquire or build at least 1,500 more long-term permanent supportive housing (PSH) units on top of the 8,000-plus PSH units the city already operates through nonprofit partners. We are proud of San Francisco’s commitment to a “housing first” model and applaud its investment in PSH, which has housed tens of thousands of formerly homeless people over the last two decades.

However, while we support increased local investment in long-term permanent housing, we question whether that investment alone will ever solve the street problem for which San Francisco has earned an international reputation. No city, not even San Francisco, can ever have enough permanent supportive housing for all those who need it, at least not until the state and federal governments step up to address what are fundamentally statewide and national crises of homelessness, poverty and addiction.

That is why Supervisor Mandelman has introduced, and Rescue SF is supporting, legislation to require the city to establish a network of temporary safe sleeping sites. Within 60 days of passage, the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing would be required to prepare and present an implementation plan that would ensure 500 additional safe sleeping site placements within nine months and enough such placements to accommodate all unhoused, unsheltered people in San Francisco within nine months after that.

The experience of shelter-in-place proves that we cannot rely on our neighborhoods to shelter unhoused people, many suffering from significant addictions and behavioral health issues, in unregulated public spaces. Safe sleeping sites offer the city a sustainable and scalable citywide response to the shelter needs of those camping on our streets. It is time for the city to move beyond pilots and piecemeal approaches, to offer any unhoused person in San Francisco a safe place to sleep that is not a sidewalk or a doorway.

Rafael Mandelman represents District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Carolyn Kenady is a founder and co-leader of Rescue SF, a grassroots citywide network of neighbors organizing for more effective City responses to homelessness.

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