Calls for solutions intensify in decades-long debate over homelessness

San Francisco’s residents and politicians have sounded off for decades on the homeless issue — at times with greater fervor than others. Of late, the debate has intensified over the large number of homeless tents along Division Street and The City’s decision to sweep them out amid mounting complaints.

Twenty-six years ago, an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner discussed a poll in which residents ranked homelessness as The City’s No. 1 “problem.” The editorial concluded by asking, “Is City Hall listening?”

That question was asked again during an approximately four-hour hearing Thursday before a Board of Supervisors committee. Business owners, residents, homeless service providers and homeless persons all turned out expressing concerns and frustrations while calling for solutions.

“Where do I go? What do I do?” asked Chad Redden, a homeless man living near Division Street. Redden, 26, said he was turned away from homeless facilities, including the Navigation Center and Pier 80.

“It’s very frustrating. I feel for the business owner. But where do I go? Better yet, where do I go to the bathroom?” Redden came to The City in 2013, was employed briefly but said he made “bad choices.”

Ivy Lumpkin, who works at the SoMa Street Food Park near Division Street, asked for ways to help the homeless. “We need direction to know how we can put our help to the best use,” she said.

One setback in The City’s efforts was revealed during the hearing. The Homeless Outreach Team, which connects with homeless persons on the street, has lost hundreds of temporary housing beds, decreasing from 330 beds in 2004 to today’s 65 beds, according to Kelly Hiramoto, who oversees the HOT Team.

“If you look at how visible the homeless [are], you can see that that is somewhat related,” Hiramoto said.

The reason for the loss, she said, was “market forces,” including the conversion of units by the Academy of Art.

“A lot of the hotel rooms [became unavailable] when Academy of Art started to expand,” Hiramoto said, adding that students are now renting the rooms at a higher rate than The City can pay.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said: “Those conversions have all been illegal.” He later added, “This city has systematically turned a blind eye to what is happening on the ground with housing.”

The intense discussions around homelessness are expected to continue today. The City declared the tents on Division Street a health hazard Tuesday and told the homeless to clear out within 72-hours, by 5 p.m. Friday, according to Rachael Kagan, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health.

The HOT team has been offering rides to the temporary 150-bed shelter at Pier 80. On Tuesday and Wednesday, a combined 25 people accepted rides to the shelter. On Wednesday alone, the team talked to 43 people on Division Street. The department said it would provide Thursday’s data today.

Homeless persons will reportedly hold a rally early Friday morning to oppose the expected clearing of the tents. Some area merchants also opposed the notices, but instead wanted The City to provide basic services like portable toilets, trash cans, mental health workers and daily street cleanings.

Mayor Ed Lee’s spokesperson Christine Falvey on Thursday defended The City’s response.

“The overall goal is to provide people with a healthier option,” Falvey said. “The concern came from our public health experts who told us this is not safe.”

Similar efforts are underway in at least two other locations.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, called for a “moratorium on the sweeps” until The City crafts a plan with housing options.

“The 150 beds at Pier 80 are not going to be enough beds to house the over 5,000 people who are on the streets,” Friedenbach said.

As residents call on The City to do more, Trent Rhorer, head of the Human Services Agency, said The City has made great strides in tackling the homeless issue.

“Since 2004, we have housed over 12,000 people,” Rhorer said, noting that his agency oversaw just 300 supportive housing units in 2000 but that has grown to 4,000.

The City spends $247 million on homeless related services, including $118 million for supportive housing and $14 million for the shelter system.

San Francisco will create a new city department on homelessness, which Mayor Lee proposed. Rhorer suggested the new department would improve coordination, client tracking and performance measures. Falvey said there is a national search underway for the department head and that the department would open sometime this year after July 1.

“This is an incredibly frustrating issue for all of us here in city government,” said Supervisor Jane Kim, who questioned whether the new department would have success. “I would love to hear more solutions.”

Joshua Sabatini

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