San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 2020
By Kevin Fagan
San Francisco Mayor London Breed unveiled a plan Wednesday afternoon for stemming the appalling increase in homelessness in the troubled Tenderloin neighborhood that has had residents there — and the homeless themselves — on edge for weeks as everyone crams in too closely on the sidewalks. Breed rolled out the plan just two days after the city was sued by residents and business owners in the Tenderloin, seeking to force the city to clean up the camping, garbage and brazen drug dealing that have radically worsened during the pandemic. The plan will try to address the problem street by street in the 49-block Tenderloin, with special focus on the 13 most troubled blocks, including the ever-problematic Willow Street. An alley of that road at Polk Street, like parts of Eddy Street and other nettlesome tent haunts, regularly gets cleared and then repopulates with hard-core drug addicts within a day. It’s gotten worse in the past month, with 30 tents and jury-rigged shelters jamming the sidewalks.
According to the 32-page “Tenderloin Neighborhood Safety Assessment and Plan for COVID-19,” the number of tents and makeshift structures throughout the Tenderloin has exploded by 285% since January to 268 today. By comparison, the city as a whole during the same period saw a 71% increase in tents and structures — and a 12% decline in homeless people living in vehicles. “This is going to be a targeted plan, and it’s going to be a challenging one,” Breed said. “We are set to be as aggressive as we can be for implementing it.” She also cautioned that cooperation will be needed from everyone in the neighborhood to make the plan work.
“We need to hold everybody accountable,” she said. “It’s not just the city’s responsibility. It’s the people who are part of that community, whether they are housed or not. We all play a role.”
One of the main new tactics will be moving people Tuesday to a sanctioned encampment in the parking lot between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum. That area is already jammed with 90 tents erected by homeless people desperate to get away from overcrowded sidewalks, and it’s been proposed as a sanctioned encampment spot for weeks by community leaders including Tenderloin Housing Clinic director Randy Shaw. The plan — compiled over the past 2 ½ weeks by several departments, including public health, police and homelessness — also calls for painting lines on sidewalks every 6 feet in heavily populated camping areas so people know how to space out their tents, and enforcing that distancing more vigorously. Police could issue more citations, but the emphasis still will be on urging people to be safer for their own good. And 50 “community ambassadors,” or workers from homeless-aid nonprofits, will be added to roam the Tenderloin, helping campers space out their living areas and access city services.
Jeff Kositsky, who as head of San Francisco’s Healthy Streets Operations Center is overseeing the plan, said it is a series of goals, not mandates. But many of its recommendations, such as adding four Pit Stop restrooms, six water fountains — “manifolds” attached to fire hydrants — and cracking down on drug dealing are already happening. “It’s a living document. It’s not the bible — more of a playbook,” Kositsky said. “At the end of the day, this is not just a tent problem. It’s a people problem, and we need to meet their needs. This is about helping everybody, sheltered and unsheltered.” No official counts have been compiled to show increases in homelessness during the pandemic, but several factors appear to have contributed to the increased visibility in the Tenderloin. Programs routing homeless people into housing have slowed while the city handles emergencies, and street addicts in need of a narcotics supply that is dwindling because of the crisis know it’s most readily available in the Tenderloin. Also, some street people are coming from outside the city, hearing that they might get hotel rooms being leased for homeless people to protect them from the virus. Adding to the visual effect is the fact that homeless advocates have handed out about 1,000 tents to street people in San Francisco since the pandemic began. As the tent and street populations grew, residents have felt less able to travel, fearing the sidewalks are crowded with dysfunctional people who might be infected with the cororonavirus. And many homeless people are just as unhappy.
“It’s crazy out here,” a man who gave his name only as Jeffrey said the other day as he sat alongside his tent on Eddy Street. “Everyone’s side by side like this, virus everywhere. But this is my neighborhood. Where can I go?” Kositsky said he and others involved in the Tenderloin project met repeatedly with residents, community members and homeless people to pinpoint challenges, needs and tactics. Chief among those concerns was how to create proper distancing between tents and around busy doorways, cleaning up growing mounds of rat-infested feces and trash, and helping vulnerable homeless people into shelter or temporary hotel rooms. Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin, was encouraged by the plan, which he said incorporated many of the requests he and others in the neighborhood made in a letter to Breed on April 20. But he said he is doubtful it will solve the problem. “I think they’re on the right track — it’s a positive step forward to get an assessment,” he said. “But we want to see action, and I’m not sure if it’s enough. There’s not much in there about getting people off the street into hotel rooms, which is where they should be. “It’s more about managing the dangerous situation in the Tenderloin rather than solving it.” Others were more upbeat. “I think to start with, anything is better than nothing. We are in a place where we can’t afford to waste any more minutes,” said Michael Vuong, head of the Tenderloin Boys & Girls Clubhouse, who helped draw up the plan. “I wish we’d started this process earlier. But at least we now have an opportunity to make it better. This is our starting point.” A few roadways, such as Ellis Street around Glide Memorial Church, will be blocked off to help provide access to food giveaways and other functions residents and homeless people need. Kositsky and health workers also intend to dramatically ramp up testing on the street for the coronavirus, to better assess who most needs help and where outbreaks might be most severe. “Some people say the city’s not doing anything around homelessness — but now you can see how much we were doing,” Kositsky. “In six weeks, we went from not-great conditions to completely off the hook. This plan is a real effort to address that in the Tenderloin, and I’m proud of all the departments that are working on it.”