Complaints by residents and business owners have intensified in the past year over homeless encampments, prompting city leaders to respond in new ways to the challenges of homelessness.
The City’s third Navigation Center is slated to open early next year, and over the summer a new department was launched to better address the needs of homeless residents.
In November, voters will even have a chance to weigh in on a controversial ballot measure about tent encampments.
Proposition Q would ban encampments on city sidewalks and authorize city officials to remove them 24 hours after offering shelter. Opponents, however, argue the measure will only make life harder for homeless residents.
The measure in some ways echoes that of the sit-lie law that voters approved in 2010. That year, those with downtown business interests and moderate politicians rallied around the law that prohibits sitting or lying on public sidewalks. Six years later, a city report deemed that effort ineffective and suggested it a waste of money.
Prop. Q, much like the sit-lie law in 2010, is also largely funded by downtown interests like the Chamber of Commerce. Ron Conway, a tech investor and prominent backer of Mayor Ed Lee, donated $49,000 to support the measure, as did tech investor Michael Moritz and William Oberndorf, a well-known Republican donor and investor.
Like the sit-lie law, critics say the measure is nothing more than a wedge issue, and even further a move by Supervisor Mark Farrell — who placed the measure on the ballot with the support of supervisors Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen and Katy Tang — to run as mayor come 2019.
But homeless advocates worry the measure also encourages an anti-homeless sentiment, instead of keeping a focus on helpful solutions. They argue Prop. Q is unnecessary since The City already has the power to remove tents.
Farrell denied the measure is about his political aspirations, and said it’s not right to let encampments remain on the streets. He described the encampments as places littered with feces, urine and needles, and prone to prostitution rings and chop shops for bicycles.
“Nobody is getting better by sleeping in tents at night,” Farrell said. “It should be our policy not to incentivize or institutionalize tent encampments but instead prioritize housing, shelter as the alternative.”
If Prop. Q passes, The City would officially ban tent encampments and have the authority to remove them 24 hours after offering some form of shelter — the number of days of housing is not specified in the proposal — and to offer to pay for transportation to reunite individuals with family or friends outside of San Francisco under The City’s Homeward Bound program.
The measure’s impact, however, is challenged by basic math. In the last point-in-time homeless count, there are some 6,700 homeless in The City, of which half live on the streets.
Some 14,000 different people go through the shelter system annually. San Francisco has 10 single-adult homeless shelters totaling 1,203 beds. As of Aug. 1, 875 people were on the waitlist for these longer-term shelter beds. There are 35 shelter beds for every 100 homeless people, compared to the 95 shelter beds for every 100 homeless people in New York.
The numbers seem to back concerns that arise if a person has to give up their belongings for an overnight stay in a shelter. If that person is back out on the streets the next night, critics of the measure wonder how that disruption actually helps a homeless person.
John Burton, chair of the California Democratic Party, criticized the measure for not addressing the homeless issue and instead creating a “plan to take away the tents and sleeping bags that protect the homeless people from cold weather and wet nights.” In his ballot argument against the measure, Burton said Prop. Q is nothing but a “guise of solving a problem when it merely pushes it down the street or into other neighborhoods.”
Burton also took aim at Farrell’s suspected political aspirations. “As a former elected official, one of the things that bothered me the most was elected officials who use the poor for their own political advancement.”
Supporters of Prop. Q have started an advertisement using the story of Doug MacNeil, the owner of Spiral Binding in the Mission, who said in July he stepped on a hypodermic needle in front of his business and is “now resigned to a year of testing for HIV and Hepatitis B.”
The commercial drew criticism Friday from the San Francisco Homeless Coalition for inciting fear. “Sadly, this new advertisement will only exacerbate anti homeless sentiment creating a barrier to forging true solutions to San Francisco’s severe housing crisis,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said in a statement.
Some have advocated for The City to open up supervised injection sites to address the epidemic of IV drug users and encourage safe needle disposal.
While Farrell conceded there are already laws on the books allowing The City to remove tents, he said there is a need for a specific policy to counter the “sporadic” enforcement.
Supervisor John Avalos said his biggest issue with Prop. Q is that the measure doesn’t need to go before voters. “The City can create guidelines for how we deal with encampments that are unsafe, and some of them are,” he said.
Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness, has declined to state his position on Prop. Q as the department continues to work with homeless residents living in the encampments.
“I am not going to get drawn into political battles over this issue,” Kositsky told the San Francisco Examiner during a recent editorial board meeting. “Politics is a very bad way to make public policy on a complex issue like homelessness. You can read into that what you want.”