San Francisco suddenly finds itself sharply divided over whether to place on the November ballot a measure addressing homeless encampments.
A politically charged debate erupted Tuesday during the Board of Supervisors meeting over allegations that, once again, homeless residents are being used by some politicians as an opportunity to score political points.
Polling in The City places homelessness as the No. 1 issue voters are concerned about as the homeless population has seemingly become more visible amid the development boom. Controversy swelled among city leaders and residents earlier this year over the proliferation of encampments along Division Street, resulting in numerous sweeps.
Supervisor Mark Farrell, the moderate politician who represents the Marina and Pacific Heights, is facing mounting pressure from progressive board members and homeless advocates to withdraw the measure he placed on the November ballot last month.
Farrell’s measure would ban tent encampments and authorize The City to remove them with 24-hour notice after offering shelter. Opponents argue The City needs to emphasize housing over enforcement.
Among the opponents is Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who called on his board colleagues to pledge that “for at least one year the board shall not approve additional laws or policies that will underfund or undermine the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.”
“It is a pledge to let Mr. [Jeff] Kositsky [the new director of The City’s homeless department] do his J-O-B — at least for a little while,” Peskin said at the meeting. He also said he would withdraw the ballot measure he introduced in response to Farrell’s.
Kositsky declined to take a position on Farrell’s measure during the meeting. However, he said the department’s mission would be served best by the utmost flexibility.
“One of the things that you all could do to help me is to actually not draw me into political conversations about a policy-related issue,” Kositsky added.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Jane Kim introduced legislation Tuesday to address tent encampments without putting the question to voters.
“This is sound policy, consistent with the fact that permanent exits are the solution to homelessness and clearing encampments alone will not end homelessness in our city,” Kim said of the legislation in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. “I hope to work with my colleagues to make this a measure that is effective policy that will allow us the flexibility to modify it if better practices arise.”
Under Kim’s proposal, The City would need to provide seven-day advance notice before clearing tent encampments, but could clear them sooner if public health hazards are present. Those who are displaced from tent encampments must be guaranteed temporary shelter for at least 90 days, under Kim’s proposal, and during the first 30 days, The City must create a plan for permanent housing.
Farrell remained steadfast in keeping his measure on the ballot.
“We have a duty to push forth policies that we believe in,” Farrell said. “I don’t think an appropriate — from my perspective — policy is going to get through the Board of Supervisors.”
Farrell also refuted the allegation that he advanced the measure as a political wedge issue. “No one is politicizing it unnecessarily,” he said.
While Farrell defended his measure, there was seemingly no escaping the overtones of the 2010 sit-lie campaign that was similarly criticized as a political wedge issue during another pivotal election year.
The sit-lie law, which banned sitting or lying on sidewalks, was recently criticized along with other quality-of-life laws in a recent Budget Analyst report for costing some $20 million in police spending but having no impact in actually addressing the homeless issue.
Peskin argued the ballot should be reserved for raising taxes or city charter amendments, which require voter approval, and only for legislation as “court of last resort.”
With approval of the new homeless department and collaboration to ask voters to generate $50 million annually for homelessness through a sales tax hike, it seemed San Francisco had become more united in addressing the challenge.
But Supervisor John Avalos said the unity was “all thrown away” and has said he won’t support an unrelated tax hike that would go toward homeless services if Farrell’s tent encampment measure remains on the ballot.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who supported placing Farrell’s measure on the ballot along with supervisors Katy Tang and Malia Cohen, opposed Peskin’s pledge.
“That is certainly in the eye of the beholder, in terms of what undermines or doesn’t undermine the department,” Wiener said.
Peskin’s pledge resolution was forwarded to a Board of Supervisors committee for further discussion.