Homelessness grows on SF’s sleepy west side

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On Guard column header Joe

Ah, The Avenues.

San Francisco’s sleepy suburbs, where you can’t walk two steps without smacking into an Irish Pub or a boba tea shop. Where Mayor Adolph Sutro once scratched out the sand dunes to pioneer streetcar-living. Those gray-cast neighborhoods where Karl lays his foggy bottom to rest.

It’s also where San Franciscans live relatively free from urban concerns, as if some special magic were imbued in Twin Peaks, holding the greater city at bay.

Those annoying “Google Buses?” Those poor Missionites, too bad they can’t ride ol’ dependable, the 38-Geary to work. Dreaded drug dealing? Sure it plagues the Tenderloin, but anywhere near Joe’s Ice Cream shop is an oasis. And homelessness? Well …

Previously, West Siders may have viewed homelessness as a problem unique to the eastern neighborhoods, but the last four years — and 2019 in particular — have seen an uptick in homelessness out west, city data shows.

And, importantly, many of these same people had homes in the Richmond and Sunset Districts before finding themselves on the streets, according to city surveys and homeless volunteers who spoke to me for this column.

San Francisco’s merciless affordability crisis spares no one, and no neighborhood.

Yes, there was always some homelessness on the West Side. But this year, the numbers edged high enough that lawmakers have launched first-of-their-kind initiatives in those neighborhoods to help.

A foggy first

Supervisor Sandra Fewer obtained funding to expand a mobile homeless outreach program into the Richmond, and next year Supervisor Gordon Mar plans to follow suit in the Sunset.

“In the Richmond District we didn’t have any services at all, and we needed to get some,” Supervisor Sandra Fewer told me, Tuesday.

Fewer did exactly that.

She secured $50,000 in The City’s budget to bring mobile services provided by Project Homeless Connect westward for the year, which quietly began in February.

The Richmond District also netted its first public bathrooms provided by the Pit Stop program through the Public Works department, which are available at Ocean Beach. And Fewer said she’s exploring help specifically targeted at aiding homeless seniors.

But it’s the mobile services from Project Homeless Connect that are the biggest leap forward this year.

Once a month, on a Friday, a van outfitted with hygiene kits, stacks of forms to fill out for services, Homeless Outreach Team members and other staffers head to Park Presidio United Methodist Church on 7th Avenue.

There, it sets up shop for the day and the staff help people who are homeless — and also people who are housed but facing rising rent or eviction — sign up for city services. They’ve reached 96 souls so far.

And about 27 neighborhood volunteers have also signed up to help, according to Meghan Freebeck, the CEO of Project Homeless Connect.

From Jesse Fink’s Toy Boat Dessert Cafe to the bluffs of Land’s End, those volunteers march The Avenues in pairs, spreading The Good Word (of city aid). They also hand out supplies: Socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and healthy food, which is often provided by Richmond neighborhood organizations.

“We can’t do it alone,” Freebeck told me. Seeing so many Richmond District neighbors saddle up to help “made a big difference.”

Those mobile services are “a good first step,” said Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Soon, however, he’d like to see West Side supervisors open permanent day-use outreach centers, which would be available daily. And exploring new housing models, like city-purchased co-ops, can help prevent people from entering homelessness at all, he said.

As a Richmond resident, it sounds like a grand idea to me. Providing services just once a month won’t cut the mustard if the trend of homelessness on the West Side keeps rising.

And rise it has.

Westside boom

The Richmond District’s homeless population has more than doubled since 2015, from 74 people to 162. The Sunset and Parkside neighborhoods, too, have seen an increase from seven people (a shocking number to anyone in The Mission, I’m sure) to 34 homeless people in 2019’s homeless point-in-time count, conducted by The City.

Even sleepy District 7, a smattering of southern and western San Francisco neighborhoods, saw its own homeless population swell from 29 in 2015 to 168 this year.

Now, let’s put those numbers into context.

Those stats certainly pale in comparison to the 3,600 homeless people who find themselves in the Tenderloin, South of Market and other District 6 neighborhoods in the 2019 count.

But in the highly residential, Rockwell-esque West Side, even a minor uptick of people on the streets is felt keenly.

“We’ve always had homeless in the Richmond District,” Fewer told me, but there were so few that “people knew them by name” and their history.

There is perhaps no better example of this intimacy than the life and death of Thomas Myron Hooker, who lived on the sidewalks of the Inner Richmond — my own neighborhood — and died in 2016.

God Bless the Richmond District Blog, the hyper-local neighborhood news site that sounded the alarm when Hooker passed. Without it, he may have vanished without anyone having been the wiser.

Many in the neighborhood knew Hooker, and recalled his smiling, dancing ways to the blog in 2016. I enjoyed greeting Hooker, too, as I visited the Richmond Branch Library on weekends. Challenged with mental illness, Hooker would tell people he flew to and from the ocean, kissing a cloud of butterflies.

Perhaps he did.

When Hooker died on our sidewalk, among our homes, many in the Richmond mourned him. I count myself among them. Neighbors crafted a small memorial filled to the brim with flowers, candles, and remembrances kitty-corner to the Internet Archive, on Funston Avenue.

Keep that level of intimacy in mind when thinking of the Sunset District’s homeless population increase, which while only seeing 34 folks in need of help, still feels drastic.

The Sunset next

That increase led the Sunset’s representative, Supervisor Gordon Mar, to apportion $50,000 to feature a similar mobile homeless outreach service there this year.

He hopes to see that program launch by January at the latest.

“People move to the Sunset District because they choose to live in a different type of neighborhood than the eastern neighborhoods in The City,” he said. “They value the quieter, almost suburban lifestyle.”

To preserve that way of life then, Mar believes his constituents will heartily volunteer to help connect unhoused people there to services.

In the meantime, Project Homeless Connect is making strides with Richmond residents. In Freebeck’s last visit to the neighborhood, someone experiencing homelessness told her they were shocked housed neighbors were trying to help them.

“They said, ‘I can’t believe these people care about me. I thought they wanted me to disappear,’” Freebeck recalled.

Sandra Dratler is one such volunteer offering hope in the Richmond District.

A resident there for 35 years, she spotted a post advertising for Project Homeless Connect volunteers on the social media site NextDoor. By April, she had joined up.

Many of those without homes that she speaks to used to have homes in the Richmond.

“They’ve lost their housing out here, but this is their neighborhood,” she said, insisting that they’re still her neighbors.

Seeing the rise in homelessness among her neighbors had Dratler feeling stymied. But seeing the fruits of her labors provides a light.

“One of the happiest stories was not related to housing,” she told me. One of the many supplies The Project Homeless Connect crew brings are reading glasses. She met one homeless man who found joy in reading but had bad eyesight.

That’s where Project Homeless Connect came in, Dratler said. The man heard about their efforts through word-of-mouth and headed straight to the church, where the team promptly handed him a pair of new reading glasses.

“He was grinning, he was so excited,” Dratler told me. “All he needed was a pair of reading glasses to be able to see again.”

And that’s a lesson, she told me: Helping people who are experiencing homelessness can brighten your own soul.

At least, Dratler said, “It does for mine.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

This story is part of the SF Homeless Project, a media collaboration, coordinated by the San Francisco Chronicle, intended to draw attention to solutions to end the crisis. See related stories: Joining the SF Homeless Project to inspire solutions, Homeless count shows sharp decline in Golden Gate Park — but where did everyone go? , Nolan’s Blues: One man’s tale of survival and Formerly homeless say city ignores complaints over living conditions in subsidized housing

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