San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 2020
By Phil Matier
San Francisco City Hall’s overdue efforts to clear the tents from the Tenderloin appear to be working, with more than 388 homeless people moved off the sidewalks and into hotels or safe sleeping camps since June 10.
The block-by-block cleanup and counseling effort has reduced the number of tents in the 49-block Tenderloin area to 172 as of Tuesday morning, compared with the 443 when the cleanup began last month.
But it has not come cheap.
The city has leased 2,054 hotel rooms for homeless people citywide. When the cost of support staff, security, and meal and medical expenses are added in, the bill comes to about $200 per room — that’s an overall total of about $410,800 a night.
The city expects the federal government to reimburse about 75% of the program’s cost as part of nationwide emergency pandemic support. But that still leaves the city with a tab of about $102,700 a day, or $718,900 a week.
Some of the city’s tab will be paid by state and federal funds the city has already received, but it isn’t clear how much more money the city will get for the hotels.
“This work is going to be costly, but the staff is working incredibly hard out there to get people off the streets and improve the neighborhood for residents,” Mayor London Breed said.
Healthy Streets Operations Center Manager Jeff Kositsky, who is in charge of the cleanup, said getting money for the rooms was only part of the success.
“This was a combined effort of city departments, community groups and neighbors,” he said.
But it took some legal prodding as well.
During the first months of the city’s shelter orders and following recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city took a hands-off approach to the tents. The idea was that tents, many provided for free by nonprofit groups, were the best way for the homeless to shelter in place.
With time, however, tents took over block-long stretches of the neighborhood, making it difficult for people to walk and at times serving as a cover for drug dealing. Residents said conditions on the streets were so bad that they were afraid to leave their apartments and felt like they were being held hostage.
After months of frustration, Tenderloin residents and businesses, together with UC Hastings College of the Law, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on May 5. The suit demanded the city clear out the “dangerously crowded” encampments, find housing for the homeless and stop the open-air drug dealing.
An out-of-court settlement was reached on June 12, with the city agreeing to remove 70% of the tents by July 20. The city also agreed to “discourage” new tents and their residents from settling in the Tenderloin.
Some of the homeless moved their tents into “safe sleeping sites” set up by the city where social distancing could be practiced and where services are available. Most went into hotel rooms leased by the city.
So far, the program appears to be working. The encampments that lined Hyde, Turk, Jones, Golden Gate and other streets are gone, replaced with crowd barriers to discourage new tents from popping up.
UC Hastings Executive Director of Operations Rhiannon Bailard said the “situation with the homeless tents is much better, but the drug dealing is still challenging.”
Tenderloin Housing Clinic Executive Director Randy Shaw agreed that drug dealing and other problems remain.
“No one is saying that the Tenderloin is a safe and healthy place yet, but progress is being made,” Shaw said.
Even the area’s supervisor, Matt Haney, a consistent critic of Mayor Breed’s handling of the tents, said the situation has improved.
“They’re moving street by street, block by block to move people off the streets, so in those areas on those streets, it’s absolutely positive,” Haney said.
But all is not roses.
Haney said the city “should be doing this in a broader way, across the neighborhood and district, and they should have done it three months ago.”
Also, with the pandemic shrinking the population of the city’s shelter system to allow social distancing in those facilities, tent camps have popped up all across the city.
The Board of Supervisors has called for all of the city’s homeless — not just those at risk of contracting COVID-19 — to be moved into hotels.
Supervisor Dean Preston, who is dealing with tents in the Haight and Hayes Valley and near Opera Plaza said, “Ask anyone on the street, and they’ll agree that addressing homelessness and encampments is a good use of city money.”
The mayor said the city lacks the support staff to house all of the homeless.
“It’s not just helping people who are homeless, but those who struggle with addiction and mental health challenges,” Breed said.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who authored the ordinance to lease hotel rooms for the homeless, said, “At this point, when my constituents threaten to sue to get results for the Mission, I’m running out of arguments for why they shouldn’t.”
And oddly enough, given the quick success of the Tenderloin clean up, filing a lawsuit may be the way to go.