San Francisco’s hotels and motels are slowly emptying of the homeless people that the city placed there during the Covid-19 pandemic. The city simply can’t afford the $260 per night, per person, price tag of housing approximately 2,000 people—just a portion of the estimated 8,000 people who live on the street. Where will they go? Elected officials have come up with a new plan: turn the whole city into a network of homeless encampments.
In June, city officials and departments developed a list of 42 potential sites that could be equipped with spaces for tents and mobile bathrooms. The urban campers, most with addiction and mental health issues, would be provided with free delivered meals and other services. Several sites were erected, including one outside City Hall and one in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Among the other proposed locations: 25 public elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as a Boys and Girls Club, city parks, and recreation areas.
Could San Francisco really turn school grounds and other public spaces into dozens of city-sanctioned homeless encampments? The prospect sounds inconceivable, but the ball began rolling last week, when Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced “A Place For All,” legislation that would establish Safe Sleeping Sites around the city. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Services (HSH) would create the sites and figure out the funding. Although touted as a temporary measure, they would remain for two years, then reevaluated annually. The long “temporary” timeframe can be explained by the failure of a site that had already been attempted at Everett Middle School. The intended occupants wanted a more permanent place to stay, so passed on the offer.
The idea is that every person without a home will at least have a tent. The project is superficially humanitarian. Certainly, when people are protected from the elements, they are safer and more comfortable—at least, until winter comes. No one would be turned away, whether the person has lived in San Francisco for years or arrived hours earlier. The city would thus have to accommodate not just the people currently living on the city streets but also the newcomers arriving daily. Nor would anyone be required to stay or remain in the city-run sites, so it wouldn’t prevent individual encampments from forming elsewhere.
Each site would house up to 150 people—so if 5,000 were to be routed to tents, the city would need to build at least 33 sites across San Francisco’s small footprint. Mandelman’s legislation, conveniently, doesn’t specify where they would be. When asked directly if schools would be part of the plan, he dodged, insisting that HSH will be responsible for determining most of the suitable locations.
The proposal to transform what remains of San Francisco into a mass of sanctioned homeless camps has supporters. Mark Nagal, cofounder of RescueSF, a citywide coalition, supports the city’s efforts to build permanent housing and doesn’t believe that people experiencing homelessness should have to wait on the streets. “There has to be something in the middle,” says Nagal. “Where the sites will be located is very important. We strongly believe residents should be involved in that. There hasn’t been enough dialogue with the residents.”
Such conversations either don’t happen or ignore residents’ concerns. For example, a site in the Haight, at 730 Stanyan Street, was proposed in May 2020. Supervisor Dean Preston swiftly approved it, assuring residents that it would be temporary. Today, 40 “transitional youth” (up to age 29) live inside the site of a former McDonald’s, while older people spill out in tents along the perimeter. Fighting, screaming, violent crime, drug sales, and drug use are ever-present. Tax revenue is dropping as businesses in the commercial corridor close, while renters and homeowners pack up and leave.
Discontent is building. Residents in already-troubled neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Civic Center, South of Market, and the Mission are fed up with being the dumping ground for the city’s problems; they’re likely to reject more tent sites. More affluent areas, such as Pacific Heights, Russian Hill, and the Richmond District would not tolerate encampments full of people with severe addiction and mental-health concerns next to their multimillion-dollar properties. In fact, when the city attempted to turn the Palace of Fine Arts into a homeless shelter, Marina residents resisted, and the plan was quickly scrapped.
Adding school football and soccer fields, yards, and playgrounds to the initial list of potential sites rankled parents who already feel ignored by city officials. “This is not the solution to the problem,” says Jennifer Hamlin, who lives in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley neighborhood and is a mother to a teenage son. “We already opposed it when they tried to do the same thing in John McLaren Park. . . . we will not allow this to happen at this or any other school in this district.”
With growing numbers of homeless attracted to San Francisco’s constant invention of new programs to feed and house them, there is no way that the city—already suffering economically from the exodus of tax-paying businesses and fewer tourists spending money—can afford to finance this ongoing support. A breaking point is reached where residents are simply pushed too hard; San Francisco’s effort to turn every vacant lot, green space, and parcel of land into city-funded homeless campgrounds could well be it.
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