An empty lot at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. has sat vacant since the summer of 2018, when a navigation center to house homeless individuals was shuttered to make way for a housing development. Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is slated to become San Francisco’s latest safe sleeping village. By the end of the month, 40 tent sites will be made available to unhoused individuals, along with bathrooms, showers, and daily meals.
The site — which holds the shell of an old electrical contracting warehouse — was purchased by developer Lennar, who in 2017 leased it to The City for a year-long stint as a homeless navigation center. When Lennar abandoned its development project in the summer of 2019, The City stepped in and purchased the site, with the plan to build 100 percent affordable housing.
While the housing plan wends its way through all the city departments, the site is being repurposed. District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen says there was a vision to turn the lot into an arts space to support local nonprofits, but when the pandemic hit, that plan became unfeasible. As she scoured her district for a site for a safe sleeping village, the outdoor space at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. was one of the best options.
“I fought against using this spot as a homeless site because I had made a promise to my constituents that we weren’t going to do that,” she said during an online town hall meeting Monday evening. “But with a global pandemic I feel like saving people’s lives is more important than a broken promise.”
The Mission neighborhood has long struggled to provide resources for its unhoused residents, and that has not changed since the pandemic hit. Ronen says much of the pandemic response services offered to homeless individuals since March have taken place in the Tenderloin, due to high demand and a controversial lawsuit filed by University of California, Hastings College of the Law to reduce tents in the neighborhood.
“We moved 120 people that were in very vulnerable conditions at risk of COVID off the streets and into shelter-in-place hotels … but we didn’t improve conditions in the neighborhood.” Ronen said. “I’ve been advocating that we need resources for unhoused people in the Mission, and we are finally going to be granted some of those resources at the end of this month.”
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has yet to contract with a nonprofit to run the new safe sleeping village, though Dolores Street Community Services was mentioned several times as the main contender. The organization operated the short-lived, six-week safe sleeping village at Everett Middle School earlier this summer.
Francisco Herrera, co-director of the day laborer and women’s collective program at Dolores Street Community Services, said Monday that the organization has a proven record of responding to the neighborhood’s needs, particularly those living on the streets.
“We have found it very successful to have the safe sleeping villages, particularly with people who’ve been assaulted sleeping or walking the streets at night,” Herrera said at the town hall meeting. “The site at 1515 South Van Ness has been an ideal place… to continue to provide space for people, who beyond situations under their control, are forced to be on the streets. This has become a model program for us, and we’re very happy to be working to make this a reality for people to protect their lives, health and safety.”
The town hall meeting had around two dozen attendees, and support for the project was widespread.
“I spent my entire life working in affordable housing, and NIMBYs drive me crazy,” said Bernal resident Buck Bagot. “Ronen’s smashing success with the navigation center makes it impossible to oppose her latest plan for this site. In hindsight, maybe the opposition had nothing to say so they didn’t come.”
But there was some skepticism that The City would use the safe sleeping village as an opportunity to criminalize those who don’t enter it.
“I’ve been a long supporter of safe sleeping sites as an alternative to add to the mix,” said Mission resident Larisa Pedroncelli. “Even though it doesn’t appear that things have improved in the Mission, the stability for our unhoused neighbors has been extraordinary now that there haven’t been as many sweeps. I hope that this will not be used as an excuse for sweeps to restart. We need to keep our neighbors in the community and support them until we can get them housed.”
The safe sleeping village is scheduled to open on Aug. 26, but HSH admits that may be optimistic. More likely, the gates will open Aug. 31.