Humane strategies to resolve unsanctioned encampments

On Aug. 20, I received an invitation from the director of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to discuss encampment fire safety issues with him and The City’s Fire Chief. My organization, the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, has been organizing with encampment residents, city services, impacted neighborhoods and community leaders for nearly two years to develop and pilot humane and cost-effective strategies that address our multifaceted encampment and shelter/housing shortage crisis. I have continuously sought to work with local government to compliment existing services, fill service gaps and utilize our resources to get us the livability and transition outcomes we seek.

With those goals in mind, I accepted Jeff Kositsky’s invitation with the following food for thought:

– As acknowledged by Jeff Kositsky at the Local Homeless Coordinating Board meeting in July, there is currently a service gap in which The City has discharged hundreds of former encampment residents back to the street after their 30- to 90-day maximum stay at a navigation center, if housing has not been identified. We need more low-barrier organized interim sites for people to transition to after the Navigation Center while they continue their journey to housing.”

– The City of Seattle just came out with evaluative data from the first year of their “permitted encampment” pilot projects, which utilize both tents and constructed wooden shelters, and the program has exceeded expectations and supported transition and community well-being, providing a safe space to transition for more than 750 individuals and transition for more than 100.

During my hour-long meeting with Kositsky and Joanne Hayes-White on Aug. 30, I asked them to acknowledge that the subhuman conditions of encampments will continue to negatively impact our neighborhoods for years and years until we work together to develop low-barrier alternatives to encampments that support transition and community integration. While I truly appreciate City Hall’s efforts to develop affordable housing opportunities and low-barrier shelters (navigation centers), I have also been a vocal critic of the “Sweeps to Nowhere” strategy that perpetuates costly misery without truly resolving encampments or mitigating public health, safety and livability issues.

Hayes-White, who shared with me she has a statue of Saint Francis in her backyard, seemed to understand that sleeping in a tent or without shelter on the street was damaging to the physical health, mental health and transition of encampment residents. I left the meeting hoping that she and Kositsky would join me in advocating for: 1) a baseline of reasonable health, fire safety and livability guidelines that we could immediately start implementing at encampments, and 2) reasonable safety standards for small shelters and transitional villages, in alignment with Seattle’s successful “permitted encampment” models.

“Box City” residents Sean and Ben move a transitional sleep and storage shelter away from Seventh Street on Sept. 14. (Courtesy Amy Farah Weiss/Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge)

Exactly two weeks after our meeting at San Francisco Fire Department headquarters, a fire occurred at an encampment known as “Box City.” The fire destroyed two wooden shelters while their owners, Jonathan and Atoy, were working a late-night construction shift. When the fire consumed Jonathan’s shelter, the propane canisters he used for cooking caught fire and exploded. Luckily, Jonathan had taken his dog Tootsie with him to work, and no one was injured. Security footage from nearby California College of the Arts showed someone approaching the shelters at 8 p.m. and leaving when the flames began at 8:45 p.m. I called SFFD and requested an arson investigation the following morning.

Instead of using this incident as an opportunity to work together with encampment residents to address fire safety hazards or create safer alternatives to street encampments, city officials sent a bulldozer to destroy all the tents and shelters on and near Seventh Street the next morning at 6 a.m. Encampment residents were told by Department of Public Works employees that they could have a blanket, sleeping bag and a pillow but no tent or shelter. A Homeless Outreach Team worker tried to secure 30-day navigation center beds, but none were available.

Do you want city officials to put an end to unsanctioned encampments? That makes sense, but we must acknowledge that throwing more money at DPW and the Police Department to play whack-a-mole with encampments isn’t the solution. We must support strategic solutions that reduce harm, support transition and increase livability for the entire community. Start advocating for organized places for people to belong on public and private land with reasonable agreements during our shelter/housing shortage crisis. It’s the moral, cost-effective and strategic way forward.

Do what’s necessary. Do what’s possible. Innovate for the greater good.

Amy Farah Weiss earned more than 23,000 first-place votes in the 2015 San Francisco mayor’s race with a policy platform that included a new, humane, outcomes-driven and cost-effective approach to addressing encampments and is the founder of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge.

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