Despite having one of the highest homeless populations in San Francisco, the Bayview Hunters Point area for years had just one emergency shelter offering 125 mats to those in need.
A city-funded 128-bed Navigation Center is expected to open its doors at 125 Bayshore Blvd. this Fall — but advocates who for years have struggled to meet an urgent demand for shelter beds in the Baview say more is needed.
“We as a community cannot depend on City Hall. We have to come up with our own solutions,” said Gwendolyn Westbrook, the executive director of the United Council of Human Services, a nonprofit that runs Mother Brown’s, a homeless drop-in center and community dining room at 2111 Jennings St.
Westbrook is spearheading the “Beds for Bayview” campaign, launched earlier this year to strategize around a longstanding goal — securing a site and funding for a full-service, permanent shelter serving the neighborhood’s homeless.
“They aren’t transients, many they are native San Franciscans, born and raised here. Some have lost their homes to gentrification,” said Westbrook, who has been at the helm of the nearly half century old nonprofit since 2005. “We want to bring in ideas on how we, as the Bayview Hunters Point community, can help solve our homeless problem in this area.”
Westbrook envisions a shelter complete with case management and housing services, drug rehabilitation and work training programs, a “service hub” where “people are able to come in and work on their issues.”
“They stay until they can get themselves ready to go through a housing program,” she said, adding that unlike at the City’s Navigation Centers, where residencies are often limited to 30 to 60 days, “people wouldn’t be going right back out on the streets.”
Apart from the emergency shelter offering mats and operated out of Providence Baptist Church, there are currently no shelter beds in Bayview Hunters Point, home to a predominantly African American community.
Unlike Providence, Mother Brown’s serves two hot meals to dozens of clients each day, and at night offers use of two showers, laundry services, a communal room with some 40 chairs and a television, where clients can stay throughout the night.
Those chairs are also used for sleeping by those unable to secure a mat at Providence and others in need of respite from the streets.
“This place has kept us out of the rain,” said Jose Willis, 63, who said he has been using Mother Brown’s services for 40 years. “Providence tends to fill up with downtown people. Not a lot of Bayview people would go there — the food here is way better.”
On a recent Wednesday, tuna casserole, coleslaw and garlic bread were on the menu. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and clients eat in shifts, to ensure that all who want to eat are fed.
“This place just might have saved my life,” said Willis. “You can eat and get sleep when it’s cold outside. When your family turns your back on you, it’s this place right here.”
Clients are encouraged to give back to the community as volunteers.
“I couldn’t stay in here because I was sick. But I could come in, eat and take showers in the middle of the night if I needed to come in,” said dining room volunteer Tammy Taylor, who said she was homeless and living out of her car for 11 months, much of which she spent parked outside of Mother Brown’s.
Despite the welcoming environment, chairs are no replacement for beds, said Quincy Carr, who has worked at Mother Brown’s for five years.
“Them sitting in chairs is not working. They are swelling up, their ankles are getting big,” said Carr, adding that Mother Brown’s did have sleeping mats for a brief time, but that they were taken away due to permitting issues. “But it gets you indoors. You ain’t cold.”
Westbrook called the situation “heartbreaking.”
More than than 1,200 adults were identified as homeless in District 10 — which also includes the Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods — in a census conducted on a single night last year. Homeless advocates estimate that this number could easily triple when taking into account those sleeping out of sight, doubled up in apartments, on couches or in vehicles. That count found the neighborhood had the second highest homeless population in The City, .
“Of the 21,000 homeless people in San Francisco, around 40 percent are African American. This is very much a racialized issue as well as poverty,” said Dayton Andrews, a human rights organizer with The City’s Coalition on Homelessness who is collaborating with the Beds for Bayview campaign.
He added that 30 percent of the unhoused population can be found in the Bayview, where only 8 percent of The City’s homeless services are currently located.
“This is the Bayview — it’s already an at-risk, undernourished, impoverished area. They just don’t put the funding over here,” said Helen LaMar, executive director of the Providence Foundation. “It’s always been like that.”
Tony Kelly, a community advocate and candidate for District 10 supervisor, said he became involved in the Beds for Bayview campaign after hearing Bayview community activist and San Francisco Housing Corporation board member Dorris Vincent housing homeless individuals in spare rooms in her home.”
The effort “meshed with Gwen’s vision of getting a full service shelter” in the neighborhood, he said.
“The City and the neighborhood has often been in denial about our needs for comprehensive supportive housing for our most vulnerable residents,” said Kelly, adding that many of the Bayview’s homeless residents “called Bayview home before an eviction or displacement.”
For years, Mother Brown’s has been fighting to change that status quo.
When a warehouse opened up next to Mother Brown’s in 2014, Westbrook worked with The City to transform the space into a 100-bed shelter. But the proposal drew the ire of surrounding neighbors and business, prompting a lawsuit aimed at stopping the project.
Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview, ultimately opposed the proposal, according to Westbrook.
“She came in and said she supports Mother Brown’s but that she can’t support the shelter,” said Westbrook. “I could not believe that she was representing this neighborhood and all these homeless people are around here — I had her come see the shape that they are in.”
Last year, Westbrook applied for funding from The City for a program to house homeless individuals with seniors in the community who have bedrooms to spare, in exchange for a stipend.
The funding would have covered the costs of housing 50 individuals — including paying for case management services and background checks — but Westbrook was only granted half of what she asked for.
Westbrook said that she assisted in efforts to gain community acceptance of a Navigation Center that opened in the Dogpatch last year. When she applied to make Mother Brown’s the nonprofit partner of the center, she said she was told she was disqualified because her proposal included an employment program in partnership with Young Community Developers.
However YCD was later awarded a contract for the soon-to-open Bayview Navigation center.
Shamann Walton, Executive Director of YCD and also a candidate for District 10 supervisor, confirmed that the organization was awarded a contract to facilitate a jobs program at the Bayview Navigation center. He said that he is supportive of the Beds for Bayview campaign.
In a statement, a spokesperson for HSH said that the department “follows all city procurement policies and guidelines and awards contracts accordingly.
Cohen said that the United Council of Human Services did not meet a criteria of the RFP and called it a “poorly run organization with a lot of internal strife and allegations of financial mismanagement.”
“It doesn’t surprise me and I’m grateful they weren’t awarded. I don’t think they are a fiscally healthy organization,” she said.
A 2017 audit by the city controller found that the nonprofit misclassified more than $80,000 in expenditures and submitted eligible receipts, among other things.
Westbrook said the error fell on the nonprofits’ former fiscal agent, the YMCA.
“We gave them original receipts for every bill we had,” said Westbrook. “We were the scapegoat.”
The continued resistance from The City, said Westbrook, has pushed her to take matters into her own hands.
“Enough is enough,” she said, adding that she has set her sights on 1800 Oakdale Ave. — the current site of the Bayview’s Southeast Community Center — as a possible location. The center is slated to be relocated and expanded at 1550 Evans Ave.
“There is no reason they need to tear that building down,” said Westbrook.
“The current structure on 1800 Oakdale Ave. is Public Utilities Commission property and I can’t speak with specificity about [plans for that site], but I am pretty confident it does not include a homeless shelter,” said Cohen.