A homeless encampment near 9th and Brannan streets in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood is seen July 20, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Addressing SF’s anticipated shelter service gaps with Safe Organized Spaces

Elected representatives, voters, and residents across San Francisco’s political spectrum agree that thousands of people living without safe shelter and essential services on our streets and sidewalks amounts to a public health and safety crisis—but despite a 2016 shelter crisis declaration from the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco has yet to deploy an emergency response that meets the scale of the crisis.

That could all change in 2019-2020, using newly adopted State codes for emergency shelter response and a “Safe Organized Spaces” framework to collaboratively activate, operate, and manage transitional villages on underutilized public and private land.

Current Services and Anticipated Service Gaps for 2019-2020

Over the past fifteen years, San Francisco has grown our shelter bed capacity to 2,300 and increased our supported housing portfolio to 7,700 units. Thanks to new local and state funding sources, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (DHSH) anticipates 300 more low-barrier shelter beds and approximately 300 supported SRO units to be master-leased in 2019. Looking ahead, Mayor Breed has pledged 500 additional shelter beds by the end of 2020 and there are 1,300 affordable housing units at different stages of the design, funding, and development pipeline.

The sobering news is that when we look at the City’s pipeline of shelter beds and housing units, we see that even the best case scenario only cuts the 1,100 person shelter wait list in half by the end of 2019—and that more than 1,000 people will still be living in crisis conditions. In other words, we can anticipate that crisis conditions on our streets will continue over the next two years under the current plan.

Now for the good news of what is possible

In December 2018, California State permanently adopted building code standards for emergency shelter response that include guidelines for tiny home “emergency shelter cabins”, insulated tents on platforms, and baseline services for transitional villages during a declared shelter shortage.

While DHSH focuses on adding hundreds of Navigation Center beds and housing units to the City’s portfolio, City Hall has the opportunity to leased/sub-lease underutilized public land to service organizations with license agreements, insurance, and code-compliant guidelines in order to fund, develop, and operate “Safe Organized Spaces” through public/private partnerships.

What are Safe Organized Spaces?

Safe Organized Spaces are community-integrated transitional villages that:

Meet CA State codes for emergency shelter buildings and service standards;

Operate in partnership with property owners, village residents, and neighbors in coordination with City services; and

Activate underutilized public/private land with license agreements, insurance, baseline health, safety, and operating standards, site-specific agreements, a community-integration team, and a built-in process for multi-stakeholder input & evaluation.

Safe Organized Spaces utilize “tiny home” shelter cabins or insulated tents that meet CA State Codes and provide essential services, gathering spaces, on-site support staff, participatory management structure and support, pathways to healing, stable housing, and jobs, and are designed to add community benefits to neighborhoods.

Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge recently made the following proposals to the Mayor’s Office and members of the Board of Supervisors:

#1: Site-specific requests for City-owned and Cal-Trans land to be leases/subleased for Safe Organized Spaces, with an additional request for an up-to-date public land inventory

#2: Matching Funding for Public/Private Partnership for Safe Organized Spaces

· 20 SOS residents ($250K matching/total of $500K)

· 100 SOS residents ($1 million matching/total of $2 million)

· 1,000 SOS residents ($10 million matching/total of $20 million)

#3: Policy to create incentives for subleasing vacant private land for interim use as Safe Organized Spaces—and/or tax disincentives for vacant property, such as Oakland’s successful 2018 vacancy tax

Once again, if we anticipate that there will be more than 1,000 people living in crisis conditions on our streets and sidewalks in 2019 and 2020, we must scale up our solutions to match the size of the crisis.

Francis of Assisi said “First do what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and soon you will be doing the impossible.” At the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge—the San Francisco-based organization that has been developing and piloting Safe Organized Spaces with current/former encampment residents, housed neighbors, and a diverse local and regional network of service and advocacy organizations since 2015—we say: “Do what’s necessary. Do what’s possible. Innovate for the greater good.”

Learn more and join over 475 San Francisco residents in signing the SOS petition at www.SafeOrganizedSpaces.org.

By Amy Farah Weiss, Bay Area born and educated, Founder/Director of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, and co-creator of the “Safe Organized Spaces” model for transitional villages. SFHC has a mission to end the crisis conditions of street homelessness with safe organized spaces on the path to healing and stable housing.

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