Sanctioned SF tent camp riles Haight-Ashbury neighborhood

San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2020

By Phil Matier

The cascade of tents hitting San Francisco’s liberal Haight-Ashbury has stunned merchants and residents alike, and led to an outcry over the city’s decision to set up a “safe sleeping site” at one of the neighborhood’s busiest intersections.

“We have had a problem with homelessness for some time, but this is the first time we are seeing tents in the neighborhood,” said resident Michelle Leighton, spokeswoman for Safe Healthy Haight, a neighborhood group formed this month to respond to the city’s plan to put a sanctioned tent camp on the site of the old McDonald’s restaurant at Haight and Stanyan streets just across from Golden Gate Park.

Leighton lays part of the blame for the tents on Dean Preston, the district’s progressive supervisor. Leighton said Preston and his supporters claim to have handed out nearly 1,000 tents to the homeless.

“They handed out all of these tents without any plan at all of what to do, so we end up with the tents on the sidewalks,” Leighton said.

Preston doesn’t shy away from his involvement in giving away tents, saying it was the right thing to do, especially as the city’s shelter system is stressed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve donated to homeless service organizations for years and donated some tents a couple months ago when activists put out the call,” Preston said. “If activists had not handed out tents, hundreds — perhaps thousands — more homeless people who have been pushed out of shelters would be huddled without shelter on our streets, a greater danger to themselves and to all of us.”

The result, however, is long lines of tents along Masonic, Broderick and other streets in the Haight and Cole Valley.

“No one is happy with the situation,” Preston said. “Not the people in the tents or the neighbors.”

For merchants like Joe Goldmark, a partner in Amoeba Music on Haight Street, the sanctioned encampment next door to his record store is one more burden being placed on an area already suffering from high rents, a lengthy street rebuild that cost merchants parking and the loss of business from the coronavirus shutdown.

“Our first choice would be for the mayor to use the hotel rooms that the city is already paying for,” said Goldmark, a member of the neighborhood group Concerned Citizens of the Haight, which opposes the Stanyan Street site.

Preston and other supervisors have also called on Mayor London Breed to house more homeless people in hotels, not just those people who are vulnerable to the virus. So far, she has set aside 2,242 rooms for the homeless — 1,140 are occupied.

“Our nonprofit service providers who have the expertise to help us run these hotels are doing incredible work, but they are stretched to the limit,” Breed spokesman Jeff Cretan said.

So the city’s short-term answer has been to open safe encampments, where tents are spaced out and services are provided. The first one opened on Fulton Street between the Asian Art Museum and Main Library, where there are no adjacent businesses or residences.

The Haight is a different story.

Merchants question if setting up a fenced, 40-tent site with showers and security on the old McDonald’s site right across from Golden Gate Park is the answer.

“The location is a terrible mistake. You have a residential street on one side of the lot, and across the street you have Whole Foods with lines outside,” Goldmark said. “The area is also filled with child care centers.”

Preston said two alternate locations considered — the Department of Motor Vehicles parking on Fell Street at the east end of the Panhandle or the Kezar Stadium parking lot across the street — were not available. School parking lots in the area were not available for the required time.

“Stanyan was not our top choice, but it has the fewest barriers,” Preston said.

“The site has a three-to-six-month window to be open. It’s not a long-term solution. This is harm reduction during the time of the pandemic,” Preston said.

What effect a sanctioned camp will have on the pandemic of sidewalk tents, which vastly outnumber the 40 slots on Stanyan Street, remains to be seen.

“There are no policies in place,” Leighton, of Safe Healthy Haight, said. “No conditions that you either move into the encampment or move on. And there is no word that the police will tell anyone to move off the sidewalks.”

On advice from the city health department, police encourage the tents on the sidewalks to maintain 6 feet of distance from one another, but otherwise they have taken a hands-off policy during the shelter-in-place.

All of which has Haight residents confused about the ultimate outcome.

“Why set up a site if the tents are not required to use it?” Leighton said.

Good question, we’ll keep you posted.

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