A temporary city-sanctioned camping site with space for around 50 tents opened up at the Civic Center this week. (Corey Browning/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

SF’s first sanctioned camping site for the homeless gives residents a safe place to sleep

Additional locations are in the works as city struggles to care for most vulnerable during pandemic

The City opened its first temporary sanctioned tent encampment this week, and more are planned to follow.

The move comes as outrage mounts over sidewalks clogged with tents and dire conditions in the Tenderloin amid the coronavirus pandemic. The number of tents pitched on sidewalks and other public areas is up by 71 percent citywide and 285 percent in the Tenderloin since January, according to a recent count by The City.

The first designated encampment, or safe sleeping site, is in a fenced-off area on Fulton Street near City Hall and contains roughly 50 tents spaced apart for social distancing, along with a handful of portable toilets, a couple of handwashing stations and 24-hour security. Officials say food, access to showers and cleaning services will also be provided.

Several locations in the Tenderloin and other parts of The City are being considered for similar treatment — some of which are already home to sprawling unsanctioned encampments. And on Friday, Mayor London Breed annunced that a second site would be opened on Stanyan Street, on the site of a former McDonalds restaurants.

“While in normal times I would say that we should focus on bringing people inside and not sanctioning tent encampments, we frankly do not have many other options right now,” Breed said on Twitter. “Having places with resources serving people in the neighborhood is better than unsanctioned encampments.”

The first approved tent camp near City Hall includes access to restrooms, handwashing stations and 24-hour security. (Corey Browning/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A few days ago, the Fulton Street location was home to roughly 90 tents pitched closely together. Now, only people who are registered as staying at the site, which is on a first-come, first-serve basis, are allowed in and out of the chainlink-enclosed area.

And for those who scored a spot, that’s a welcome change.

“We never had a place to stay where we could actually be safe and have our tents up,” said Roger Boyd, a homeless man staying in the encampment, who says he’s lived in the Civic Center area for years.

“This whole COVID-19 was almost a godsend for a lot of us,” he said. “We’re used to constantly losing our stuff. I lose my stuff at least once a month, I’m talking down to my socks. This has been nice, to have something almost stable.”

Another resident of the encampment, Nick, a San Francisco native who declined to give his last name, echoed the sentiment.

The camping site is surrounded by a chain-link fence and only those staying there are allowed inside. (Corey Browning/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

“It’s the first time since I’ve been homeless that none of my stuff has been stolen,” he said. “There’s troublemakers, but in general I think people are trying to help each other out, make sure we don’t get sick or die.”

And although most advocates would prefer to see unhoused people moved into hotel rooms amid the coronavirus pandemic, sanctioned encampments with adequate services are seen as a second-best solution.

“We want to see everyone offered hotel rooms, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “But since that is moving so slowly, at the very least if The City is going to continue to force people to sleep on sidewalks they should at least have basic sanitation services and be able to sleep in spaces where they are able to social distance.”

The City has moved close to 1,000 homeless people into hotel rooms and 120 people into RVs or trailers so far, according to city data. Another 165 people are indicated to have been placed in “congregate beds,” or shelters.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the area of the encampment and the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods, said that while he is not against the project, he also preferes hotel rooms as a solution.

“I am not convinced that those safe sleeping sites are easier, let alone cheaper to set up than moving people into hotel rooms,” he said. “The amount of energy, resources, staffing that they are putting into creating a site for 50 people in tents is tremendous.”

Nick, a San Francisco native, said his stay in the encampment is “the first time since I’ve been homeless that none of my stuff has been stolen.” “There’s trouble makers, but in general I think people are trying to help each other out, make sure we don’t get sick or die,” he said. (Corey Browning/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Last month the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring The City to procure 8,250 hotel rooms for shelter space, 7,000 of which were to be used for people experiencing homelessness. The plan was estimated to cost nearly $60 million per month.

A cost breakdown for the safe sleeping cites is not yet available, according to spokesman Jonathan Streeter, who stated only that the operation involves a number of city agencies as well as nonprofits who will be contracted for their services.

Haney also said he’s concerned the encampment’s reduction in capacity will mean more people are back to sleeping on the sidewalks.

“They’re going to move 50 people out of that area, likely they’re going to set up on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin,” he said. “I’m concerned that this is more about optics than actually solving the problem.”

UC Hastings, with its campus in the Tenderloin, along with a handful of Tenderloin businesses and property owners, sued The City earlier this month citing unlivable conditions in the neighborhood. Shortly after, the mayor’s office produced a loose plan to address some of the concerns.

The plan suggests several possible safe sleeping sites in the Tenderloin: a parking lot at Hyde and Turk streets, a small open space at 750 Eddy St, next to City College’s Civic Center campus, Myrtle Street between Polk and Larkin streets, and some portions of sidewalk near Boeddeker Park.

Roger Boyd, who said has lived in the Civic Center area for years, appreciated the additional security of the sanctioned encampment. “We never had a place to stay where we could actually be safe and have our tents up,” he said. “This has been nice, to have something almost stable.” (Corey Browning/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Haney said he’s also heard talk of utilizing sidewalks around the temporarily closed Hilton hotel in the Tenderloin as safe sleeping space.

Other locations rumored to be under consideration include Everett Middle School on Church Street.

Weeks ago, a group of community organizers set up a safe sleeping site in a Bayview park, but according to Friedenbach it has since been shut down and its residents have been moved into RVs or trailers.

And despite some support from the Board of Supervisors to explore making certain safe sleeping sites last beyond the pandemic, they are currently not being considered as permanent measures.

“The Safe Sleeping Village is a temporary approach and those areas will be returned to their prior uses once shelter in place rules are lifted. The City will continue to work on long-term, safe solutions for those experiencing homelessness,” Streeter, the city spokesperson, said in an email.

Whatever a long term solution might look like, Friedenbach similarly sees this one as temporary.

“We are happy that The City is finally open to having some organized spaces,” she said, but “not as a permanent thing. We do not believe it is adequate housing. We believe everyone should have a safe and decent place to call home, but we do think it’s a creative alternative measure.”


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional information.

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