Tent dwellings are down in the Tenderloin—but rising across The City

‘It’s been a long game of sidewalk shuffling folks’

As the number of tents were taken down in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood during Mayor London Breed’s recent emergency declaration, sidewalk dwellings increased overall across San Francisco, new city data show.

The collective data paints a complicated picture of whether or not the emergency initiative is making good on its goals, or just shuffling homelessness to other parts of The City.

From June 2021 to March 2022, tents in the Tenderloin decreased by about 55%, going from 77 to 35, according to The City’s data dashboard on the Tenderloin Emergency Initiative. Meanwhile, the total number of tents in San Francisco increased by 55% over the same time period, going from a total of 387 structures in June 2021 to 601 in March 2022.

As of March 2022, 6% of tents citywide are in the Tenderloin, down from 20% last summer.

The results largely reflect a doubling down of operations in the Tenderloin to address homelessness, particularly under Breed’s 90-day Tenderloin Emergency Initiative, which allowed The City to waive certain government rules and implement a series of initiatives aimed at reducing crime, homelessness, overdoses and other challenges. But broader factors contributing to homelessness — racial and economic disparity, cost of living, and access to healthcare and high-paying jobs — have not budged.

“In the background of the Tenderloin effort is a brutal reality that outside of San Francisco in our region and our world, the factors that lead to homelessness are increasing,” said Sam Dodge, Director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center, which organizes encampment clearings and attempts to move people living on the street into shelters.

Nearly 540 individuals have been placed in temporary shelters during the emergency initiative, the dashboard data show. And 84 people experiencing homelessness were placed into longer-term housing, according to The City’s dashboard.

Still, many individuals living in encampments that get cleared must simply relocate if housing offers do not match their needs, such as having a pet or medical needs, or relocation offers may be scant to begin with. In those situations, a person might simply move to another part of the city or even just a few blocks away after a tent encampment is cleared.

“It’s been a long game of sidewalk shuffling folks,” said Carlos Wadkins, human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. “If there is an abundance of resources and people can move into housing, you see actual change. But when people move from block to block, you’re not going to see these numbers change.”

While a part of keeping sidewalks accessible, breaking up encampments can often be traumatizing and destabilizing for those living on the street. Reports have shown that when clearing encampments, individuals may lose items like medication, wheelchairs or other important personal items.

“We are placing hundreds of people into life-changing programs. Oftentimes these are people who have been out for a long time on the streets. But sometimes they go from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Dodge. “It’s not our intention to simply dislocate people from one neighborhood to the next.”

Counting tents provides only a limited window into the scale and types of homelessness in San Francisco by focusing only on its most visible extremes. Other individuals who experience homelessness may not be able to afford a tent, reside in cars or temporary shelters, or stay with friends and family.

San Francisco has more than 8,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in 2019, according to the most recent Point-In-Time count, a biannual survey of the city’s homeless population. Many homelessness experts believe that number likely grew during the pandemic.

Tents are nevertheless one metric by which The City measures its housing crisis and provides a window into understanding street homelessness and other challenges that often intersect, such as the overdose epidemic that is disproportionately impacting unhoused populations in San Francisco. Between 2020 and 2021, overdose deaths skyrocketed to more than 1300 in San Francisco.

The operation brought together the Department of Emergency Management, Department of Public Health, police, the Mayor’s Office and many other emergency responders and nonprofit social service providers, who put their heads together to address challenges in the Tenderloin.

The operation led to the creation of the Tenderloin Linkage Center, a homeless services and navigation center where guests can get a hot meal, do laundry, take a shower or just take respite in a safe space. The facility also assists with signing up for programs like Medi-Cal, medication assistance and referrals to other health programs. More than 50 overdoses have been reversed at the center from January 17 to March 27, according to a data dashboard tracking the initiative’s progress. Very few individuals have been placed in addiction treatment directly through the facility, however.

At a recent public hearing probing the Tenderloin plan, several supervisors including Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin neighborhood, praised the Linkage Center for meeting basic needs but questioned the initiative’s overall efficacy. Some supervisors from other districts meanwhile said they have seen conditions deteriorate in their jurisdictions while attention and resources, such as police, have been focused on the Tenderloin.

“Since (the Tenderloin emergency initiative) started, conditions in the Mission have gone down to a degree that I haven’t seen since I started as a supervisor. I’m at a loss and I’m a little frustrated,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said in the meeting. “Our housed residents and our unhoused residents are suffering.”

The Tenderloin historically has had the highest concentration of homelessness, as well as challenges related to drug use and dealing, compared with other parts of The City.

Housing and homelessness advocates are now wary that a similar trend of reshuffling people on the street could follow in neighborhoods like the Mission if permanent and supportive housing placements are not prioritized over removing tents.

“We moved people out of the Tenderloin, and they went somewhere else. Where do they go from there?” said Wadkins of the Coalition on Homelessness. “It’s a constant game we will play.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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