City Explores Homeless Camps in Public Parks During Crisis

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department is preparing a report for the SF Board of Supervisors listing possible park sites to safely house the homeless to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Photo by Michael Durand.

In an attempt to avoid more widespread coronavirus infections, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department agreed to report a list of properties they control that could be used for homeless camps during the COVID-19 pandemic.

District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar have asked the department’s General Manager Phil Ginsburg to review all properties under its jurisdiction and list which might be appropriate to set up homeless encampments that meet CDC guidelines for social distancing, along with portable restrooms, hand washing stations and staff to keep them orderly and secure.

The department controls 3,400 acres of land in the City, or about 11% of the total land area.

“This legislation does not call on any specific sites to be opened, nor does it allow people to camp freely throughout parks,” Fewer said. “It simply gives the City the option to use Rec. and Park land where suitable. In this emergency, we need to act quickly to protect public health and that includes identifying all possible locations where the City can provide centralized health services, bathrooms, hand washing stations and other necessities for unhoused San Franciscans to slow the spread of COVID -19. Our ability to lift the shelter-In-place mandate depends on our ability to protect our most vulnerable people at safe sleeping sites that get people off our sidewalks and into safe, supervised shelter sites with enough room for physical distancing. 

“This legislation would simply require Rec. and Park to create a report identifying suitable locations throughout the city where it may be possible to establish these sites in accordance with public health specifications,” she said.

“This ordinance simply ensures that all options are adequately considered in our public health emergency strategy,” Mar said. “While we must keep the focus on bringing as many homeless people as possible indoors, to shelter-in-place safely, we understand this faces many challenges in that we need additional temporary solutions for people left outside. This will be especially true as growing unemployment drives individuals into poverty and into homelessness. 

“A secured, staffed, and contained safe sleeping site will be safer than the tents lining our residential and neighborhood commercial streets and will serve to prevent (the COVID-19) spread and save lives for both housed and unhoused families,” Mar said.

“What we’ve all learned and appreciated is just the very important role that parks are playing in this response, not just as spaces for our direct response but also as places of respite, of health and well-being for San Franciscans,” Ginsburg said. “Our parks have never been more important. They are not ‘nice-to-haves;’ parks are ‘must haves.’ They are not just amenities, they’re utilities fundamental to our health and well-being and so this is no doubt a complicated challenge to balance how to best use these public spaces for the public’s health and welfare.”

 At a meeting of the Board of Supervisor’s Land Use and Transportation Committee in May, some supported the idea and some did not.

“We need to get these people housed, in tents or hotels, whatever we can do as fast as possible,” Theo Gordon of the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Action Network said. “It’s a health risk. It’s cheaper; it’s better to put them in tents and hotels than to put them in ICU (intensive care unit) beds if they get sick because they can’t shelter-in-place.”

“While much of public comment today has been about the parks, this legislation is actually about Rec. and Park property in general, which includes parks but also parking lots and golf courses,” Cynthia Fong of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco said. “We need more space, and as a seven-by-seven mile city we need creative solutions. That’s why we are asking, supervisors to explore all possible pathways in addressing this public health crisis impacting the City’s unhoused residents, and while hotel rooms should be a priority, we also have a lot of outdoor sites on city-owned property that could be used to mitigate this crisis and this disaster right now.”

But many are dead-set against any idea of putting officially sanctioned homeless camps up in Golden Gate Park or any other.

Dr. Sharon Meyer, a San Francisco physician, said the parks are not an appropriate place for homeless camps.

“If you put the homeless in the parks, anywhere you put them you have to recognize you will not get them out. It’s extremely hard to remove people once they’ve planted themselves there,” Meyer said.

 Add to that the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse along with mental illness, and she envisions a nightmare scenario to keep order in such camps.

“This is a chronic ongoing, pervasive problem. We’ve always had this problem but we ignored it or we tried different solutions with all good intentions,” she said.

Instead she recommends testing as many of the homeless as possible, and as quickly as possible, to find out how many are actually positive for COVID-19. Then find those people a place that is out of the way and available for them to quarantine and recover without imposing on everyone else, like perhaps if the City would buy a cruise ship and have it sit offshore reserved for COVID-19-positive homeless people.

“I’m just worried that it might start off small, these homeless encampments, but it’ll keep growing and growing and I just don’t trust the politicians to keep it at a manageable level and keep things confined,” said Richmond District resident Mike Petkov. “Things will keep snowballing if they just decide to go that route. I think it will definitely become a breeding ground for the disease. It will just become kind of lawless.”

Keith Pasq is a retired SFPD lieutenant who worked out of the Richmond Station. He’s also concerned with security issues in these camps and mentioned recent stabbings at the Civic Center homeless camp, plus a fight that broke out in the camp at 18th Avenue and Geary Boulevard which drew several squad cars.  

“You just have to come to the realization that, what do you do with the people that say ‘no’? Are you OK with, just like, alright, cool, next?” Pasq said. “Or ‘no, I can’t have you doing what you’re doing in front of my house, in front of my business’? Unfortunately people don’t want to tell anyone ‘no.’”

J. Adam Moore, 43, from Santa Cruz said he moved to San Francisco in 2002 and worked in the computer industry until 2012 when he became homeless. He notes that, wherever they put the homeless, unless electricity is available they will have a much harder time getting out of that situation.

“More than anything, electricity, because without electricity you’re telling us ‘we want you to remain homeless,” Moore said. “There’s no way to get a job without physically leaving that area unless we have electricity. To make us stay in one spot and not have electricity is to say ‘we don’t want you to not be homeless.’ The hotel rooms have electricity, and that seems to be the tipping point. They feel like if they give us electricity (in a park or homeless camp) then we’re just ‘living here.’”

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