San Francisco Chronicle, June 12, 2020
By Dominic Fracassa
San Francisco officials have reached a deal with a group of Tenderloin residents and business owners who sued in federal court last month to compel the city to clear the neighborhood’s “dangerously crowded sidewalks” of tents and find shelter for its homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.
The settlement, filed Friday, requires the city to remove 70% of the tents crowding the neighborhood’s sidewalks in just over a month and to get those living in them into vacant hotel rooms or sanctioned encampment sites. In exchange, the Tenderloin residents — led by the UC Hastings School of Law — agreed to stop pursuing litigation. There were about 415 tents scattered throughout the Tenderloin’s 49 blocks as of June 5. By July 20, around 300 of them must be gone, according to the terms of the settlement.
The city also agreed to “discourage additional people from erecting tents in the neighborhood” and committed to employing ill-defined “enforcement measures” for people who refuse to accept an offer of a shelter bed or a spot in a sanctioned tent encampment.
It was not immediately clear if the Board of Supervisors will approve the settlement, which they must do within the next three months. If the board rejects it, the litigation against the city can resume. There has been considerable tension between Mayor London Breed and the board over homelessness during the pandemic. The board has pushed for thousands of unhoused people to be put into hotel rooms while Breed has insisted the city is doing everything it can within the constraints of what’s legally and logistically possible.
“COVID-19 has impacted many communities in our city, but we know that the Tenderloin has been particularly hard-hit,” Breed said in a statement, adding that “both the city and UC Hastings are committed to address the short-term challenges while we work towards long-term solutions.”
Kristen Villalobos, one of the plaintiffs who sued the city, said she “watched in dismay and with growing horror as the conditions in the Tenderloin have deteriorated past a point that I had ever considered possible. I love my neighborhood, and I look forward to working with the city in any way I may to continue ensuring a better life for everyone who calls the Tenderloin home.”
Encampments in the Tenderloin have mushroomed to an unprecedented level during the pandemic, due in part to the strict limits the city placed on its shelter network in an effort to reduce the risk of outbreaks. Shelter capacity dropped by 77% in order to facilitate social distancing among residents, leaving people with few options other than sleeping outside, according to city data reviewed by The Chronicle.
The number of tents and makeshift structures in the beleaguered neighborhood grew by 285% between January and early May, when Breed released a plan for addressing the swelling homeless population in the neighborhood in response to the lawsuit.
As of Wednesday, 314 unhoused people from the Tenderloin have been moved into hotels since early May and 131 have been placed in “safe sleeping villages,” primarily the city-sanctioned encampment on Fulton Street between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum. That site is slated to close June 30, though that date could change depending on the city’s ability to safely relocate residents there.
The city has secured nearly 2,400 hotel beds for homeless people and other vulnerable populations — like those with no space to safely self-isolate — according to city data. As of Friday, 1,274 were occupied along with 81 recreational vehicles leased by the city for the same purpose.
“Bringing people inside with services, mostly into hotel rooms, following the law passed by the board, should absolutely be the primary strategy,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin, referring to an emergency ordinance the board passed in April to procure more than 8,000 hotel rooms for the city’s homeless and frontline workers. Breed is not required to carry out that law, however.
“It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get the city to follow the law, but to the extent this lawsuit actually forced the mayor and the department of homelessness to take this crisis seriously and bring people inside, that’s a good thing. Now let’s make sure they actually follow through,” Haney said.
Under the terms of the settlement, the city will prioritize hotel rooms for unhoused people residing in the Tenderloin with heightened health risks, which render them especially vulnerable to serious illness or death if they contract the coronavirus. The city estimates around 30% of people currently living in Tenderloin tents will be eligible for a hotel room. Free testing will also be available to all Tenderloin residents during the pandemic, the city said.
The deal also calls for city officials to open more “safe” sleeping villages outside of the Tenderloin for people not placed in hotel rooms. Inside the district, the city will also look for sites to set up sanctioned encampments in places like parking lots. “The city agrees that this option will only be available for a maximum of 50-70 tents because of existing structures in the Tenderloin,” the settlement reads.
The city will also work to discourage new tents from cropping up in the neighborhood because the plan “may have the effect of encouraging additional people to come to the Tenderloin in the hope of securing a hotel room or placement at a safe sleeping site,” according to the settlement.
What “enforcement measures” the city will take to prevent encampments from returning are not specified. On Thursday, Breed released a sweeping blueprint for reforming the city’s Police Department, one pillar of which envisioned replacing officers with social workers and behavioral health experts on service calls that don’t involve criminal acts or threats to public safety. How much of a role the police will play in preventing people from erecting tents in the Tenderloin following the setup isn’t yet clear.
Homelessness activists have taken strong stances against the forced relocation of people in encampments, though the settlement does require all parties to “respect the legal rights of the unhoused of the Tenderloin in all manners, including in relation to relocating and removing the unhoused, the tents, the other encamping materials and other personal property.”
In many ways, the lawsuit encapsulated long-simmering frustrations over the beleaguered neighborhood’s myriad problems, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The tightly clustered encampments presented a serious health risk by making it near-impossible to maintain distance from other people, according to the group that sued the city. The lawsuit also highlighted the mobility problems the encampments posed for people with disabilities and the enduring issue of open-air narcotics dealing.
Three nonprofits based in the Tenderloin filed a motion Tuesday requesting to join the lawsuit, arguing that it would violate the rights of the homeless by encouraging sweeps of encampments. On Thursday, the co-director of one of those nonprofits, Faithful Fools, said she hoped the motion will make the judge reconsider the settlement agreement.
“This lawsuit is just pitting housed people against unhoused people, one group of disabled people against another,” said Sam Dennison, referring to the lawsuit’s contention that clusters of tents on the street impeded the ability of disabled people to leave their houses.
“A number of the homeless people on the street also have disabilities — mental and physical. What we’re saying is you shouldn’t favor one group over the other. There are solutions that can satisfy everybody. We need housing, not sweeps.”
The other two nonprofits filing the motion with Faithful Fools were Hospitality House and the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.