San Francisco Chronicle
Does city have homelessness emergency?
Frustrated by the crisis of persistent homelessness in San Francisco, a group of residents wants the city to declare a state of emergency to enable a more urgent response to the problem.
The move would be similar to action taken by newly elected Mayor Karen Bass in Los Angeles, who declared a homelessness emergency on her first day in office in December to fast-track moving thousands of people off the streets. It would also mirror Mayor London Breed’s emergency declaration over COVID-19, which cut through red tape and helped major policy changes happen quickly. At last count, nearly 4,400 people were counted living on San Francisco streets in one night.
The call for an emergency declaration comes at a time of simmering tensions around the issue. A gallery owner was caught on video spraying a homeless woman with a hose in January to try to get her to move from in front of his business. And a potential village of tiny cabins in the Mission District is on hold after community opposition erupted over its proposed location near a school, and pricing for the cabins which far exceed those used in other cities.
The emergency idea was one of several discussed Thursday evening at a problem-solving event hosted by the Chronicle’s SFNext initiative, in partnership with the Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy organization for the homeless, and RescueSF, a community organization dedicated to finding solutions to the problem. The gathering brought together residents, providers of homeless services, business owners, people who have lived on the streets, and city employees, in an effort to get people with often differing views and perspectives to work together on a hypothetical challenge: how to get 2,000 people living on the streets into safe shelter in a year.
Other ideas popular at the gathering included more aggressive repurposing of older hostels, hotels and office buildings, many of which are largely vacant in the wake of the pandemic. These can be ideal for shelter because they provide more safety and privacy, along with the ability for homeless people to keep their personal belongings. But repurposing existing buildings, and maintaining them, will be a challenge for building owners and developers without city subsidies and cutting red tape to get projects approved, a process that is notoriously drawn-out in San Francisco. Being on emergency footing would help, said Tom Rocca, partner and manager of Yerba Buena Commons, an affordable housing project.
Focusing on women and families, who account for significant percentages of the unhoused population, should also be a greater focus, many in the session agreed. Women feel especially unsafe in many shelter situations and need opportunities to get off the street that better meet their needs, said Sammie Rayner, chief operating officer of Community Forward SF, which sets up shelter units for women.
“We have 2,700 women unsheltered every night,” Rayner said, so scaling up this model could make a huge dent in the number of people on the streets, but it requires more city funding.
Many people expressed frustration with the city’s coordinated-entry system, which evaluates needs for homeless services and generally prioritizes housing for people in more dire circumstances. Some wondered whether placements would happen faster and last longer if the city focused instead on housing people who faced fewer health or other challenges. Other ideas surfaced to improve the way the city sets up shelters. The city could pay communities to receive them, potentially soothing local backlash. Shelters could also become more comfortable, and the city could end the practice of making tenants leave during the day and return in the evening, participants said.
These and other ideas would have to factor in how quickly people are falling into homelessness. For every person the city is able to get off the streets, “maybe four other people are becoming unhoused,” said Andrea Evans, member of the city’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board, an advisory body to the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Evans and Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, emphasized that simply getting people off the street and into shelter does not solve the larger problem, because they need to then transition to other types of housing so that shelters can accommodate new people who fall into homelessness.
Some participants expressed anger during the workshop. Many people said they wanted to see service providers and elected politicians held accountable for delivering results. John Dennis, chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party, took it a step further.
“I think most people who work in what we would call the homeless industrial complex have the right intentions,” he said. “Unfortunately, they’re failing. And if I were the CEO of the whole project, I’d fire every one of you.”
Participants also were encouraged to think of ideas outside the traditional box. Among the suggestions were using hotel barges that are generally used to accommodate hotel overflow. Or more prefabricated shelter units, or converting empty warehouses. Or deploying heavy-duty tents like those used by the military that sit off the ground.
Many participants noted the lack of available land in the city for building or placing new shelter accommodations.
But “if we’re talking wacky ideas, there are a lot of golf courses in the city,” said Peter Estes, community resource program director at advocacy group San Francisco Senior and Disability Action.
Noah Arroyo is lead reporter for SFNext, a San Francisco Chronicle initiative focused on engaging the public in finding solutions to the city’s most challenging problems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach SFNext at email@example.com.