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SF explores sanctioned homeless camps, shelters in parks

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A man walks past a homeless man sleeping on a grate along Bay Street on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco should permit “safe and dignified sanctioned encampments” as it struggles to expand the number of emergency shelter beds and law enforcement runs daily operations to remove tents on the streets, the Coalition on Homelessness said Thursday during a five-hour hearing on homelessness.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who called for the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services hearing on homeless policies, said ideas like the coalition’s are worth exploring because the current homeless response is not working.

“When my office and all of our offices and the mayor are demanding an enforcement response and that enforcement response does not offer most people an actual place to be, it’s an untenable situation for everyone,” Mandelman said.

City officials said that there are an estimated 4,300 unsheltered residents living on the streets and “consistently” more than 1,100 people on the waiting list for shelter beds.

Meanwhile, other city officials called for more aggressively opening shelters like Navigation Centers. Among them was Supervisor Vallie Brown who, during the hearing, called for The City to open up an emergency shelter at Golden Gate Park’s 30,000-square foot County Fair Building on 9th Avenue.

Brown represents the Haight neighborhood, where The City has failed to open a long-promised shelter for transitional age youth. “My issue is there is nowhere for people to go,” Brown said. “We keep saying that this is a crisis, but our actions are not like it is a crisis.” She said if there was an earthquake, the emergency response would be to shelter in the park. She also said that churches need to open up their doors for homeless services.

Mandelman said while solutions like permitted camping, either with tents or tiny homes, which are being tried in other cities like Seattle and Portland, are not permanent solutions they are worth exploring until The City can expand its shelter capacity.

“We do not want them becoming part of our landscape in San Francisco,” said Mandelman, who invited the coalition to give a presentation on the idea of sanctioned homeless encampments during the hearing. “But I do believe that we are going to get to the place where we have the shelter capacity we need, and until we get there we may need to look at some of these options.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness, said that the most effective sites in other cities are run by the homeless themselves. The sites would help protect homeless from the illegal confiscation of their belongings and criminalization, she said.

“We firmly believe that all humans have a fundamental right to safe and decent housing,” Friedenbach said. “We do not believe this is a permanent solution, but we do believe that in the meantime we can do this and get folks some sleep.”

SEE RELATED: Supervisors go on record denouncing homeless sweeps

The idea of sanctioned camping sites for the homeless comes as some city officials and homeless advocates are questioning the effectiveness of the more than year-old Healthy Street Operations Center, a collaboration of the Police Department and Public Works, among others. They worry the targeted operations, which include tent confiscations and citations, are doing more harm than good.

Commander David Lazar, who serves as the “incident commander” of HSOC, said that they have a policy in place to not confiscate belongings or cite for illegal lodging unless someone refuses an available shelter bed, which are mainly seven-day shelter beds at a Navigation Center.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, however, said that when the Navigation Center model was first launched in March 2015 the promise wasn’t short term stays, but stays as long as it took until an exit from homelessness was found, such as a room in a single-room occupancy hotel. “If I were sleeping in a tent on the street and I was offered seven days in a Navigation Center and I was going to give up my security system and my belongings and the spot that I feel comfortable in for the moment, the rational choice is not to accept that.”

Del Seymour, a member of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, said that he has observed officers not following the policies. “They are not abiding by your policies,” he said to Lazar at the hearing, adding that he heard an officer address a homeless person: “‘Get the hell out of here or you’re going to jail.’”

He also offered up a suggestion for a homeless shelter, the 94,000-square foot Brooks Hall, underneath Civic Center Plaza outside of City Hall, currently used for storage. He said 1,700 people could sleep there.

During the hearing, some members of the board placed blame on Jeff Kositsky, director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, for not moving fast enough to expand shelter beds and even putting up obstacles.

“When you say that in the last two years that there have been 491 net new beds, less than 250 beds per year, that we are adding to the system, that is frankly not responding to the level of the crisis that we have on the streets,” Ronen said, addressing Kositsky.

For example, she said that there was funding in last year’s budget for a Navigation Center for transitional age youth that has not yet opened.

SEE RELATED: City falling short on plan to house homeless youth, commission says

Kositsky said it is not for lack of trying. “The bulk of the TAY population is in District 5. We have been working very hard to find a site in District 5.”

Ronen expressed disbelief: “I have a hard time believing that we couldn’t find a single site in District 5.”

He noted that Breed has a goal to open up 1,000 shelter beds by 2020 with 500 by this summer.

Ronen pressed him for details on where those 500 beds are going to open.

“We are exploring numerous sites around the city, and I don’t have specific information on those locations at this time,” Kositsky said.

Ronen said that the vague response “is not going to cut it for me,” and noted she may call for a hearing next week to demand a document showing “the timeline and the place where they are all going to go.”

SEE RELATED: Report: Nearly 400 people died homeless on SF streets since 2016

“We have to ask for this level of accountability,” Ronen said. “It’s uncomfortable but it is the truth and there are people dying in the streets that we have to fight for.”

A Department of Public Health report released Feb. 19 found at least 391 homeless residents have died on the streets of San Francisco since 2016.

The Homeless Mortality in San Francisco report from the Department of Public Health mapped the 308 known locations of 391 homeless deaths documented since 2016. (Source: SFDPH)

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