City Grapples With Homelessness as Haight Safe Sleeping Site Closes

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The closure of a Safe Sleeping campsite for homeless people at the corner of Haight and Stanyan streets last month, and a new housing proposal for that site, are raising questions about how the City is dealing with such issues in a post-pandemic world.        

Homeless Youth Alliance Executive Director Mary Howe said when the camp was first set up more than a year ago, it was supposed to last no more than six months. However, the City kept extending its time.

“Closing dates were changed many times, and always very close to when an end date was in sight,” Howe said. “That is something that was incredibly problematic and traumatic to residents and staff alike.

“Temporary programs are set up and facilitated very differently than long-term ones. Closing our site at a different time than other sites meant we had the opportunity to advocate for our residents to get meaningful placements, which most likely would not have been possible if several programs were closing at the same time.”

This suggests the possibility that with concerns about the pandemic beginning to fade, tolerance for Safe Sleeping sites might also be dissipating. But like the virus itself, the situation is evolving rapidly. 

“I am happy to say we did not have one case of COVID on the staff or among the residents of CAMP (the Safe Sleeping site) nor did we have any outbreaks in the population we regularly work with,” Howe said. “We will continue to offer vaccine clinics during our evening drop-in site, while remaining prepared for any changes. I think what we experienced over the past 13 months is that things are constantly shifting and new recommendations occur.”

June Lin-Arlow lives in the neighborhood near the campsite and has supported it all along. 

“It’s been really quiet,” Lin-Arlow said. “It hasn’t attracted lots of crime. For the most part you don’t even notice that it’s there. I don’t think it has impacted the neighborhood at all.

“Over the time that it’s been here, I’ve seen people come through and it’s been cool to see people get some stability and go to school, like someone who was there … going to nursing school. And it’s hard to do that when you have to watch your stuff all day. It’s hard even to get a job if your choice is between going to your job and losing all your stuff if you’re homeless.”

One local business owner agreed the site has been helpful.

“We didn’t see an increase (in homeless people around The Haight) as the result of the camp closing, but we definitely know that there will continue to be people that become homeless and we will continue to see a need,” Christin Evans said.

Evans owns Booksmith on Haight Street and is on the board of the Haight Ashbury Merchants Association, as well as the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC).  

Evans mentioned a woman in her 70s who had knee surgery while temporarily staying with friends because she had been “priced out” of her residence.

“She really needed a higher level of care than they could provide her after her surgery and it was a fight to get her a navigation center bed, even though she receives Social Security,” Evans said. “She’s not a drug addict. That’s the reality of where we’re at right now…. The faces of homelessness are elderly; they are youths that are LGBTQ or identify in a way that they are not accepted where they are coming from.”

A City homeless count published just before the pandemic showed that from 2015 to 2019, the number of unhoused people rose from 6,775 to 8,035. 

Fernando Marti of the Council of Community Housing Organizations said the former McDonald’s parking lot was identified as a potential campsite before COVID-19, but the pandemic expanded the need for more like it across the City. 

Plus, as tourism shut down, hotel rooms began to open up and provide space for people to shelter in place. So, the City started leasing shelter-in-place hotels. However, those leases are set to expire this fall. 

“The big fear is what’s going to happen to the folks that are housed in those buildings,” Marti said. “Are they going to be turned back to the streets? The City is desperately working on solutions trying to place folks in existing supportive housing or in other existing housing situations.

“And at the same time, there is a move to acquire as many of these buildings as possible…. Right now, there’s an opportunity of acquiring these buildings and turning them into permanent housing, and then those become pathways for the folks who have been in these Safe Sleeping spaces to access permanent housing.”

He added that this is a pressing need, because, when tourism eventually comes back, hotels will likely start serving tourists again and not the homeless, unless the City purchases the properties. 

“It’s still a little unclear how strong tourism will come back or whether it will look the same as before,” Marti said. “So, there’s this short window in which the City might be able to acquire a number of these hotels. But, if they wait too long, that window is going to close.”

Evie Hidysmith is a westside organizer for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF) who works with tenants facing eviction, not homeless people, but she’s sees a direct connection between them. 

 “So many of the tenants I work with are facing eviction, and we know that eviction is one of the most prominent reasons that people end up unhoused,” Hidysmith said. “The eviction moratorium will expire and all of those people will face eviction…. When the City is on the brink of having thousands of people face eviction – with the potential consequence of ending up unhoused – why would we take away Safe Sleeping sites and other resources that we have built?

“At this moment in time, all we’re going to see is more folks losing their homes, not fewer, so it actually feels very contradictory to me and unhelpful to limit the resources that we’re able to offer,” she said. “For me, the pandemic is a time to not just provide resources because it’s a pandemic, but rethink the ways that we engage with our communities…. As we come out of the pandemic, rather than talking about a ‘return to normal,’ I think we should redefine what ‘normal’ is, and it should include Safe Sleeping sites (and) public restrooms for unhoused folks to have ample access.” 

An eight-story, 150-unit building has been proposed for the site, which would include affordable housing for homeless youth and families, although it is still at least a year away from breaking ground. But some have noted that the City has not committed to reserving any of those for senior citizens.

“We’re happy that they’re going to include transition-age youth as well as families, but we did ask that they include seniors,” Tes Welborn said. Welborn sits on the HANC board and is co-chair of the Coalition for a Complete Community (CCC). 

“We don’t have a senior center here in the Haight Ashbury area either, like other parts of town do,” Welborn said.

Categories: Homelessness

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