Homeless advocates ‘sick of sound bytes’ around tent issue

San Francisco’s policy for dealing with homeless residents living in tents is at a crossroads, leaving voters in November with the next say after one of two competing policies was sidelined Thursday.

Proposition Q would ban tents and authorize The City to remove them within 24 hours after identifying available shelter, including bus tickets out of town if someone on the other end agrees to house them.

The measure, placed on the ballot by Supervisor Mark Farrell with the support of three other colleagues, is emblematic of how politically divisive the homeless issue can become. In fact, it’s about as controversial as the sit-lie debate of six years ago.

Opponents, like Supervisor Jane Kim, argue longer notice is needed to best help those living in tents, as well as guaranteed shelter for at least 90-days.

Kim’s competing legislation, however, was sidelined Thursday after a hearing before the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee. She said she wanted to further examine the best approach and allow the Department of Homelessness, which officially launched Aug. 15, time to figure out the best protocol.

“Do you think it’s helpful to have legislation that dictates how tent encampment removal occurs?” Kim asked Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department of Homelessness.

“No, I don’t,” Dodge responded. He explained that they are experimenting with different methods.

Kim is in a heated state Senate race this November against Supervisor Scott Wiener, who supports Prop. Q and often argues Kim’s position only encourages encampments, including in a campaign news release emailed at the time of the hearing.

Meanwhile, the department is “in the middle of” addressing the homeless encampments one area at a time and fine tuning its own approach.

Encampments, which city officials define as two or more tents, have arguably become more visible in The City leading to complaints from residents and businesses and calls on City Hall to act during the past eight months. Today, The City estimates there are some 80 encampments.

After a “little more than a month” the department worked with some 50 homeless residents in clearing out the encampment near Islais Creek using new methods, such as bringing in toilets and dumpsters. Dodge confirmed that 11 entered the low-barrier Navigation Center shelter and two entered long-term residential rehabilitation beds.

The City has started to address encampments in the Mission, focusing on the area between 19th and 14th streets and between Harrison Street and South Van Ness Avenue, Dodge told the San Francisco Examiner. He estimated there are about 120 homeless residents in that area.

Dodge would not comment specifically on Prop. Q. Political contributions for the measure include $15,000 from Building Owners and Managers Association, $1,000 from developer Oz Erickson, $5,000 from Committee on Jobs, $5,000 from the Chamber of Commerce and $5,000 from SF Travel.

“The City should not be guaranteeing affordable housing just to anyone who sets up tents on our sidewalks,” said Patricia Aleman, an SF Travel director.

Kim responded, “I don’t know any other solution to people living in tents if we cannot provide affordable housing. I don’t know where we expect to put them, if we expect them to disappear, vanish into thin air. The only solution to homelessness is housing.”

Housing is the center of the debate since demand is greater than shelter capacity. Of San Francisco’s more than 6,000 homeless residents, about half sleep on the streets every night. Adult shelters, for example, have 1,203 beds and on Aug. 1 there were 875 homeless residents on a wait-list for 90-day shelter beds.

Chamber of Commerce representative Jim Lazarus said there is “illegal activity of every type” occurring in the encampments and “this should not be allowed in any civilized city.” He added that The City should “put people into shelter by our standards of humane treatment and not the standards that the homeless people may want us to abide by.”

Henry Karnilowicz, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, recommended The City have the homeless live in warehouses on Treasure Island. “Wouldn’t that be a better place to live rather than out in the streets and affecting our businesses?”

Social worker and homeless advocate Colleen Rebecca called the comments from Prop. Q backers “disgusting and disrespectful,” arguing that the homeless “want nothing more than a safe place to sleep and live” but there aren’t enough resources.

“I’m sick of sound bytes,” Rebecca said. “We need to work together and do something real. Encampments are made of people — human beings.”

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