A developer plans to demolish the buildings that house the Out of the Closet thrift store on Polk Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Opinion: The demolition of Out of the Closet will hurt public health

The City needs to protect free public health service providers

By Natalia Kresich

At a time when San Francisco is scrambling to come up with an adequate response to a major public health crisis, the City is also planning to demolish one of the few remaining free health service providers outside of the City’s network of clinics and hospitals.

On Monday, the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to approve or support a last-minute neighborhood appeal of the demolition of a half-block strip of Polk Street that houses Out of the Closet thrift store and HIV services provider, Fashion Exchange and Jeet’s Smoke Shop. All three business would like to remain on Polk St. but were not offered spaces in the new development.

Out of the Closet is a thrift store and free HIV services provider serving Polk Street since 2005. The store is a part of the AIDS Health Foundation, and provides free on-site STD & HIV testing as well as free condoms. Proceeds from clothing sales go towards providing low-cost care for HIV patients. There is one remaining location in South of Market. A third Out of the Closet location on Church and Duboce closed in 2014 after a dispute with the building’s landlord.

A Southern California developer plans to demolish the stretch of Polk Street that includes Out of the Closet and build an 85-foot mixed use development with 100 units, 92 of which would be market rate and eight of which would be affordable.

The SF Planning Department voted unanimously to approve the project. Only one planner asked fellow planners to consider whether the loss of the businesses would have a “cultural impact” on the neighborhood and on Polk Street. Indeed, the project would likely contribute to the erasure of Polk Street’s historic gay and trans community as well as displace residents in a neighborhood which remains a hub for low-income services and affordable housing.

At a time when we face inadequate responses to public health crisis, free, accessible, and neighborhood-based health services are needed more than ever. San Francisco is currently experiencing multiple, ongoing public health challenges, including the crisis of thousands of unhoused people forced to live on our streets, the continued epidemic of drug addiction and mental health problems, as well as the new pandemic of Covid-19, a virus that poses acute threats to those whose health and immune systems are already compromised. Moreover, these crises have been exacerbated by the weak privatized healthcare system of the United States.

Given the inadequate response to these public health emergencies, it is imperative that free, accessible, and neighborhood-based health services be allowed to continue to operate. Prioritizing market-rate development over public healthcare services and community-serving small businesses is an unacceptable position for our Supervisors to take. During the AIDS epidemic, community institutions sprung up to serve affected populations and became lifelines and anchors in their communities. We need more, not less, such lifelines— especially during public health crisis.

Natalia Kresich is a San Francisco native who writes about local issues.

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