Will SF embrace ‘safe’ tent encampment sites during coronavirus pandemic?

San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 2020

By Trisha Thadani and Kevin Fagan


San Francisco officials and activists are frantically searching for spaces to safely house the city’s homeless who are in tents crowding sidewalks. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced a resolution Tuesday urging the city to turn empty parking lots into sanctioned encampments where the homeless could set up tents — 6 feet apart — and also access bathrooms, handwashing stations, meals, drinking water and garbage disposal during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the city on Monday began repopulating the city’s biggest homeless shelter, Multi-Service Center South, which was emptied two weeks ago after health teams determined 68 people staying there tested positive for the coronavirus. That number later grew to 96 infected residents and 10 infected staff members. The shelter will be taking in people “who are no longer symptomatic and have recovered from COVID-19,” Max Barnes, a spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center, said in an email. Those people will be coming from city-leased hotels, where they’ve been living while they recover from the illness. Barnes added that some also will be going to Moscone West, which has been set aside since the MSC South outbreak to shelter homeless people who recovered.


The movement from hotels back to the shelter, and the resolution on tent camping, reflect an urgency by city leaders and advocates to arrange safe places for homeless people during the crisis. Because many, especially those who’ve long been living outside, have extra vulnerabilties from age and complications including diabetes, the feeling is they must be housed or given adequate physical distancing to keep not just themselves safe, but everyone around them. “This is an extraordinary moment where we are able to try things that we haven’t been able to try before,” said Mandelman, who added that he was working on similar legislation before the pandemic. “Hopefully, we can add safe sleeping sites to the set of things we are offering people.” The idea of a safe camping site has been floating around City Hall for years, long before the pandemic hit. Now, the calls have grown more urgent as tents cluster in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Castro and Haight-Ashbury — an especially troubling sight in a time when social distancing can mean the difference between life and death. City homeless managers have resisted sanctioning encampents, noting that they often have failed in other cities, but the coronavirus crisis now has them reconsidering. Several sites are being studied, and recently issued federal guidelines say it can be safer to let homeless people live outdoors than putting them into congregate settings. The city has eased enforcement on tents on sidewalks, so long as they are 6 feet apart from each other and not blocking access to a home or business — but many campers around the city have been ignoring that advice and setting up close to one another. None of those who tested positive at MSC South showed any serious symptoms, which suggests many more of the city’s 8,000-plus homeless population could be infected. And some homeless people moved from the shelter to hotels said they are leery of going back, noting that it hasn’t been proven yet by scientists that having the disease makes a person immune. “Where is the science behind that idea that we can’t get it again?” said Richard Steenson, who tested positive at the shelter and has been in a hotel since then. “There is nothing definitive out there. They’re playing Russian Roulette with my life. I don’t want to go back.” Resolutions often have no legislative teeth, but Mandelman hopes his will encourage the opening of a safe camping site. Mandelman said he has been talking to the San Francisco Unified School District about using the parking lot at Everett Middle School. Meanwhile, Supervisor Dean Preston — a co-sponsor of the resolution — also has pursued the idea of using Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park and the DMV parking lot on Fell Street in the Panhandle, although those sites have been considered unlikely by crisis managers.


“A final policy decision has not been made regarding whether we’ll go forward or what sites will be selected, but we should have an update by the end of the week,” Barnes said.


The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing did not respond to a request for comment on the status of securing any sites around the city. The resolution also comes as city officials scramble to move hundreds of homeless people into hotel rooms leased by the city where they can safely quarantine. Nearly 1,000 people have been moved into hotel rooms, but that still leaves thousands of others without shelter. The supervisors passed an emergency ordinance last week that forces the city to lease a total of 8,250 rooms by the end of this week — about 1,000 more than currently planned by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. But the department says that securing such hotel rooms is much more difficult than just leasing a room and moving someone in there — it is a logistical puzzle, they say, that involves securing food, security, staff and transportation. Hopefully, Mandelman said, the safe tent encampments could fill the gap while the city works to move more people inside. According to the resolution, the encampments would be staffed 24/7 and include janitorial and other services. “This experiment with hotels is very interesting,” Mandelman said. “And I think an experiment with safe sleeping sites is worth undertaking right now.”

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