Latest homeless shelter delay epitomizes San Francisco’s biggest challenge

‘We can’t use that urgency to go through a bad process’

Plans for a shelter to quickly house hundreds of people living on the streets have been stalled, a delay that epitomizes the challenge The City faces in acting with urgency to address its deepening homelessness crisis.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee voted Wednesday to withhold approval of the $18.7 million grant needed to move forward with the shelter until more community outreach takes place.

Upwards of 250 adults might have been moved into a property at 711 Post St. in the Lower Nob Hill neighborhood within a matter of weeks had supervisors approved the grant.

Members of the committee acknowledged the severe challenges facing people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. But they ultimately cited a lack of community outreach and haphazard engagement efforts as reasons to wait another month before considering the allocation.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who does not sit on the committee but represents the district where the shelter would be located, said many of his constituents had not received adequate notice of the proposal or this hearing. He described his district as a place with a proven track record of embracing homelessness services, but only after a robust public process.

“Meaningful and real involvement with the community has been all but absent,” Peskin said. “It has been box-checking government at its worst.”

Achieving widespread community support takes time, time that people surviving on the streets don’t have, say critics of the board’s decision.

Officials acknowledged the situation’s urgency and the need for city departments to move quickly, but they simultaneously asked for more time spent engaging with local stakeholders to get neighborhood buy-in before moving forward.

“We’re all well aware of the urgency of this work,” Supervisor Gordon Mar said. “But I would echo the comments of my colleagues that we can’t use that urgency to go through a bad process.”

Some 8,035 people were experiencing homelessness in The City as of the 2019 annual point-in-time count, the last since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. There’s long been a gap between the number of people who need shelter and the number of beds The City can offer. As of last year, The City had 5,080 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds.

Mayor London Breed’s Homelessness Recovery Plan seeks to close that chasm. It calls for the addition of 2,100 total adult and transitional age youth shelter beds by June 30.

The property on Post Street between Jones and Leavenworth streets would help reach that goal. Residents would face few barriers to entry, and there would be no maximum length of stay. However, they would have to be referred to the shelter, and anyone staying there would be checked in and out when leaving the building.

A former youth hostel, the building offers a unique semi-congregate shelter model, which means not everyone sleeps in a commonly shared space. It has 123 rooms that range from single bedrooms to four-person occupancy rooms. Every floor has a bathroom and a shower, and there’s ample community space in the form of a lounge, lobby and front desk. It also includes a commercial kitchen, dining area and basement storage space.

Emily Cohen, deputy director of communications and legislative affairs at the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), said this configuration mirrors some of the positive traits from the shelter-in-place hotel program as it gives more privacy and independence to residents.

“We need to be smart about how we add more beds, and this project offers us the ability to do that and it can be done quite quickly,” she said.

Under the proposed agreement, HSH would grant $18.7 million to Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that employs individuals with experiences of homelessness or incarceration. Already, it oversees operations for a number of street cleaning, homelessness services and outreach programs citywide including safe sleeping sites, shelter-in-place hotels and safe parking sites.

Urban Alchemy would not only provide around-the-clock operations and support services to the shelter, it would also be the leaseholder of the building from February until June 30, 2024.

“We are really excited about working with Urban Alchemy for this project,” Cohen added. “They have a great track record with us of opening new and creative program models.”

Based on public comment, the community reaction appears polarized.

Some people expressed frustration at The City’s outreach process, which took place during the holiday season and failed to reach many neighbors. They also said Lower Nob Hill had “done more than its fair share” of supporting people experiencing homelessness — there is a navigation center right around the corner from the proposed shelter address — and called for other neighborhoods to provide services.

Others said they feared Urban Alchemy wasn’t equipped to be effective case managers.

Cohen said her agency was ready to pull together a working group of local stakeholders to provide answers to questions and resolve any concerns, but she lobbied for doing that alongside approval of the grant as The City prepared the property to open.

“I think the most pressing reason to move forward is the 250 people who would sleep outside while we wait on this process,” she said.

Those in support of the shelter echoed her sentiments. They emphasized the severity of the emergency on San Francisco streets as reason to act now.

“We absolutely believe that keeping people on the street for another month is an awful decision,” said Corey Smith, deputy director of the Housing Action Coalition. “The situation will not get better after community meetings.”

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí asked whether The City could own the building instead of paying someone to be the lease holder, but was told HSH’s current strategy favors acquisition of buildings that could be turned into permanent supportive housing. This property is not a good fit as not all bedrooms have private bathrooms, according to Cohen.

She pointed out that an over-emphasis on permanent supportive housing, which she called the long-term solution to homelessness, leaves people in need of immediate housing with few barriers to entry without a safe place to go. If they can’t enter a shelter, for example, they might not ever be able to move toward eligibility for permanent housing options.

“The need for shelter beds is one of the most pressing needs that we see,” Cohen said. “We are adding a significant amount of permanent supportive housing, which is incredibly important, but we need to simultaneously grow our emergency response so people can flow through the system.”

Though HSH asked the Budget and Finance Committee to reconsider the grant as soon as possible, members voted to wait until its next meeting on Feb. 2 to discuss the item again.

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