Mother Brown's Kitchen has been feeding and helping homeless people in the Bayview district for more than a decade, yet it continues to face opposition in its quest to open a shelter next door.
Staff from the organization, which serves meals and operates a drop-in center, recently turned up at City Hall to plead for the 100-bed shelter to end the “inhumane” practice of having 70 homeless people sleep in chairs every night.
Their passion, solidarity and deep roots in the community moved some city supervisors, such as Eric Mar and John Avalos, who admittedly are no longer so easily affected. But that's only one side of the story. On the other side are the opponents — nearby residents and business owners — who say the shelter would be a step back for the community.
The tensions between the two sides highlight the changing demographics of the community and prove that homeless issues remain a lightning rod in San Francisco politics.
WALL OF OPPOSITION
Earlier this year, Bayview merchants told The San Francisco Examiner about their concerns with the shelter plans. While acknowledging a dearth of homeless services in the area, some worried the location would conflict with efforts to revive the Third Street corridor.
“We know the need is there,” LaShon Walker, president of the Bayview Merchants Association, said in May. “But our role is to think about business development. We're not anti-anything; we're just saying how can we coexist?”
In spring, roughly a dozen owners of industrial businesses located around Mother Brown's submitted a petition to The City protesting the shelter because of safety reasons and fears that it will be “extremely detrimental” to businesses.
Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview, is siding with the critics who don't want to see the shelter in the warehouse space at 2115 Jennings St., which is under the same ownership as the space that houses Mother Brown's Kitchen at 2111 Jennings St.
“This is not a classic not-in-my-backyard situation,” Cohen said last month. “We are talking about a community that already has opened its arms and is embracing a very fragile population.”
Cohen added that the area also has a needle exchange, methadone clinic and food pantries.
“We are introducing a fragile population in an already fragile part of the community,” she said.
Residents, too, have their concerns. Judith Keenan, who recently bought a home nearby at 3900 Third St., said the shelter is not right for the area.
“The Bayview already carries more than its share of the burden of helping the poor and the homeless, and this homeless warehouse will be just blocks from one of the only parks and wonderful public pools in the neighborhood,” Keenan said. “The Bayview needs to attract businesses, a grocery store and new residents, not more poverty.”
CHANGING THE VENUE?
J.R. Eppler, president of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, said The City is eyeing the southeastern neighborhoods as the new Tenderloin as it tries to clean up mid-Market Street for San Francisco's ongoing tax-break-fueled tech revival.
“While The City is expanding significant resources to 'clean-up' Market Street, it appears that it is doing little to protect the many organizations along Market Street and in the Tenderloin that provide support to our at-risk population,” Eppler wrote in an Oct. 29 letter to The City. “It is simply wrong to move today's Tenderloin to another neighborhood lacking appropriate infrastructure and struggling with its own quality-of-life issues.”
Eppler noted that 12 years ago, the community successfully fought a plan to locate a homeless shelter in the Dogpatch neighborhood for similar reasons.
SUPPORT AT CITY HALL
Mayor Ed Lee — along with his homeless czar, Bevan Dufty, and Trent Rhorer, head of the Human Services Agency, which oversees San Francisco's existing 1,100-bed shelter system — back the Bayview project.
Rhorer said there is a clear need for the shelter, as the surrounding area has a high number of homeless people at 1,278, according to the January citywide homeless count. Currently, a church offers people a place to sleep on mats and store their stuff in plastic trash bags, but they must leave in the morning.
Rhorer promised conditions would only improve in the area if the shelter is built.
“You're going to see fewer homeless on the street, you're going to see better services,” he said. “This is certainly a win for homeless folks in the Bayview, but it can also be, if done correctly, a win for the residents and the businesses that are in the surrounding area.”
Amid the conflict, a fire inspector reportedly cited Mother Brown's recently with a $250 code violation for allowing people to sleep overnight in chairs.
Mother Brown's CEO Gwendolyn Westbrook said she was told by the fire inspector that he was sent by Cohen. The inspector did not return calls for comment and Cohen denies that she ever made the request.
“I did not send the fire inspector and say, 'Hey, listen, go out there and cite this program.' That's not true,” Cohen said. But she did acknowledge that she had a meeting with high-ranking city officials and told them, “There are violations that are occurring. We have to correct them.”
Cohen said she was addressing complaints coming into her office and the City Attorney's Office. “I don't have any vendetta against Gwen,” Cohen said, adding that she has fought for the program's city funding.
Westbrook said the citation from The City has made a bad situation worse.
“They don't sleep there anymore,” Westbrook said. “They sit up and watch TV with the lights on now since we were fined for [letting them sleep in chairs]. Their legs are swollen, their hearts are bad. They're dying in the street. They're running to General Hospital when an easy solution for me was just to have these beds where people can lay down. I didn't want all this political stuff to come about.”
NEXT STEPS FOR THE SHELTER
After the conflict forced a two-week delay, the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote Tuesday on accepting a $978,000 forgivable state loan for the shelter.
Yet even if the funding is approved, the lease for a shelter operator and a zoning change to turn the warehouse into a residential-use property would need approvals from city agencies.
The shelter would cost about $500,000 annually to operate all hours of the day.
Living on the street
The City's homeless count is performed every two years. The following numbers show only those living outside:
1 (Eric Mar): 218 (2007); 120 (2009); 106 (2011); 321 (2013)
2 (Mark Farrell): 81 (2007); 60 (2009); 35 (2011); 24 (2013)
3 (David Chiu): 206 (2007); 189 (2009); 188 (2011); 363 (2013)
4 (Katy Tang): 70 (2007); 74 (2009); 83 (2011); 136 (2013)
5 (London Breed): 114 (2007); 115 (2009); 180 (2011); 284 (2013)
6 (Jane Kim): 1,239 (2007); 1,167 (2009); 1,001 (2011); 1,364 (2013)
7 (Norman Yee): 21 (2007); 45 (2009); 36 (2011); 19 (2013)
8 (Scott Wiener): 190 (2007); 92 (2009); 108 (2011); 163 (2013)
9 (David Campos): 200 (2007); 132 (2009); 124 (2011); 247 (2013)
10 (Malia Cohen): 349 (2007); 444 (2009); 1,151 (2011); 1,278 (2013)
11 (John Avalos): 20 (2007); 43 (2009); 69 (2011); 40 (2013)
Note: Of the 6,436 homeless people counted this year, more than half (3,401) found on the streets without shelter, while the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.
Source: Homeless counts