Like other neighborhoods, Hayes Valley has seen an increase in tent encampments since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Competing Hayes Valley petitions reveal fractured response to tent encampments

Some business owners say they signed a ‘tent-free zone’ petition unwittingly

Kim Alter was working the to-go window at her restaurant Nightbird last month when someone approached her with a petition. She was told it asked the mayor to remove the sprawling tent encampment on Octavia Boulevard.

Alter was intimately familiar with the issue. She was a regular at community meetings, a chef that cooked meals to feed San Francisco’s food insecure and a part of efforts by the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association to “compel city officials to provide alternative sleeping sites and wraparound services to the area’s unhoused.”

What Alter actually signed that day, though, was a letter from Better Living in Hayes Valley, a less-known neighborhood coalition demanding Mayor London Breed designate Hayes Valley a “tent-free zone.” Tents diminish the quality of life, the letter said, and threaten to make conducting business in the popular commercial corridor undesirable.

“The present day conditions that accompany sharing our streets with those that are unsheltered has developed into something seriously insurmountable,” the letter, leaked to the public earlier this week, reads. “The magnitude and scope of its effects on this neighborhood is something that needs to be cured.”

Better Living and HVNA both submitted petitions in July. By the end of the month, 11 people living in tents on Octavia Boulevard were asked to leave by city officials. Four of them accepted alternative housing in a congregate shelter or hotel room, while the other seven declined services, according to the COVID Command Joint Information Center.

“I am going to take responsibility for signing something I didn’t totally pay attention to, because I did think it was a petition to safely move people that were living in tents to what I thought would be a better environment,” Alter said.

She wasn’t the only person who felt duped.

Multiple business owners included as signatories to the Better Living letter told the Examiner they were under the impression it was related to HVNA’s platform, which they believe better accounts for the safety of customers, workers and individuals experiencing homelessness alike.

Had they known they were backing requests to effectively ban tents without any solutions, many said they wouldn’t have signed.

Competing petitions

They may pay a price for the mistake. When the tent-free petition went viral, social media erupted with criticism and calls to boycott any establishment listed in support.

Lloyd Silverstein owns an optical eyewear shop. He said he’s received messages from customers saying they’ll never patronize his store again. Others have been attacked and labeled as NIMBYs, despite a track record of outreach and engagement with unhoused neighbors.

“The ‘shamers’ on Twitter don’t realize that small, woman-owned businesses are not ‘the system.’ We are, in fact, on the front lines of the COVID crisis in Hayes Valley,” said MaryMar Keenan, a pottery shop owner for 13 years.

Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes Hayes Valley, has worked closely with the HVNA and local merchants for weeks in crafting their recommendations.

He doesn’t support banning tents, especially without solutions, and he doesn’t believe the idea reflects business owners’ desires to move the unhoused off the streets and connect them with services and safer alternatives.

“Obviously everyone has a right to do their own petitions, but I would just caution that I don’t think this is a reflection of the neighborhood will that we’ve seen,” Preston said.

Even Silverstein, also an HVNA board member, signed the tent-free zone petition, thinking it was related to the one he’d been a part of authoring. He didn’t recognize the man collecting signatures, but he gave it a cursory glance, was told it was to clean up Octavia Boulevard and signed off when he saw a long list of merchants he’d worked with on trying to find solutions, a decision he now regrets.

“I should’ve spent more time looking at this thing, but it never dawned on me that there would be this bait and switch,” Silverstein said of the alleged deception.

Dire straits

The fractious neighborhood dispute comes at a time when merchants are in dire straits.

Within three commercial blocks in Hayes Valley, 19 businesses have closed permanently due to shelter-in-place, Silverstein said. Those that remain open must overcome dwindling foot traffic, plummeting revenues and the challenge of creating a new pandemic-friendly business model.

As operations move outside, effectively running a business surrounded by large populations of individuals experiencing homelessness poses unique challenges.

Restaurant owners such as Evan Rich of Rich’s Table and David Alexander of Papito report increased burglaries and vandalism, heightened fears for the safety of their staff and regular encounters with human waste and needles on the outside in early morning hours.

The COVID Command Center acknowledges there’s been an uptick in tent encampments in Hayes Valley, largely due to the occupancy restrictions placed on congregate shelters as a result of the public health orders.

Still, Rich, Alexander and many other neighborhood business owners say they want to find a humane and sensitive solution.

“I have total and complete empathy for the situation that a lot of these unhoused individuals find themselves in […],” Rich said. “I am not asking for support, we are hanging on by a thread much like everyone else in the industry and in the neighborhood. We are just trying to do our best to make a really bad situation a touch better.”

Neighborhood disagreements

Better Living, which has no social media presence and has anonymized its leadership, didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.

Supporter Bob Barnwell, who also happens to be chair of the HVNA Public Safety Committee, says he’s heard great frustration among residents at the inaction of both HVNA and The City to reduce the number of encampments.

The alternative campaign — which called for the permanent removal of all encampments, creation of a plan to prevent “re-population” and establishment of an advisory committee to ensure accountability from city officials — was a way to engage neighbors and get people in power to pay attention, according to Barnwell.

“That’s probably not a very realistic idea,” he said of the tent-free zone proposal. “We’re just alerting the people we sent this to that they’ve got to start looking at Hayes Valley because it’s being taken advantage of by the homeless and the tents.”

Barnwell said HVNA failed to inform residents of its efforts and its petition, and he expressed exasperation he couldn’t attend board meetings despite his position as public safety chair.

On behalf of HVNA, Silverstein called Barnwell’s claims false, pointing to an email newsletters and foot canvassing campaigns used to get word out about the petition.

City response

Merchants said they’re worried the divisiveness created by the competing petitions will distract from the good work being done by so many restaurants that have mobilized to feed the unhoused and shops that have provided street-level support to those living in tents during the months-long shelter-in-place period.

But they also implored The City to step in, and said they were vexed by its slow response and the burden local business owners bear as a result. Preston shared their frustration, saying they had been “pushing hard” a safe-sleeping option locally.

HVNA’s petition proposes three safe sleeping sites within Hayes Valley: 33 Gough St., a site previously slated to be a Navigation Center; the Performing Arts Garage at 360 Grove St.; and 600 McAllister St., the opera parking lot.

To date, none of those proposed sites have been approved, and residents report the return of some tents to Octavia Boulevard as well as the continued presence of smaller encampments on Franklin, Laguna and Fulton streets.

COVID Command Center says creating a safe sleeping site requires signoff from multiple agencies. There are two existing safe-sleeping villages so far and another soon to be announced, officials there said.

But many Hayes Valley merchants told the Examiner they’re tired of waiting.

“The City has long failed to come up with a humane solution to the homeless crisis. When COVID hit, hundreds of additional unhoused people were displaced […],” Keenan said. “The situation is cruel and inhumane.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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