Tents were spaced apart for social distancing at an encampment site for the homeless set up by advocates in the Bayview District on May 1; the site has since been dismantled. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tents were spaced apart for social distancing at an encampment site for the homeless set up by advocates in the Bayview District on May 1; the site has since been dismantled. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Safe sleeping sites are a critical step during pandemic

The City must explore all possible solutions to its homelessness crisis

By Sandra Lee Fewer and Gordon Mar

San Francisco has received accolades across the state and the country for responding quickly to COVID-19, and showing leadership by putting into place the precautions necessary to save lives. But The City has struggled again and again to adequately respond to the urgent need to protect the public health of our homeless population, which threatens our ability to lift the shelter in place order.

The mayor has stated a goal of procuring 7,000 hotel rooms and the Board passed legislation requiring even more, but The City is falling far short of our goals on both accounts. As of May 13, only 1,741 hotel rooms had been secured for unhoused people, and only 62% of those rooms were occupied.

Hotel rooms should continue to be a priority in ensuring that vulnerable people living on San Francisco streets are protected from the threat of this terrible virus, particularly those who are elders, or who have compromised immune systems. While we continue to press forward to procure hotel rooms, we must also explore all other options to address our homelessness crisis— a serious problem before COVID-19, but now with the inability to move people into indoor shelters, a catastrophe.

On May 5, we introduced legislation that would allow us to further explore a model of creating “Safe Sleeping Sites” on Rec and Park lands in San Francisco, which includes parking lots, open space and other facilities in addition to our parks.

It would also require the Rec and Park Department and the Department of Real Estate to each write a report identifying suitable Rec and Park land and other underutilized city properties where it may be possible to establish these sites. Safe Sleeping Sites, as defined, include marked off space for each tent that allows for adequate social distancing, bathrooms, handwashing stations, meals, drinking water and garbage disposal, consistent with Department of Public Health guidance and best practices.

Each Safe Sleeping Site would have a safety plan, be staffed 24/7 and include janitorial and other critical services.

There is an incredible amount of misinformation being spread about this legislation. This legislation would not allow people to camp freely throughout the parks. It would simply allow the Department of Public Health and other city departments to take a closer look at all city owned properties to find suitable locations for safe sleeping sites and make it an allowable use on Rec and Park lands. This legislation does not mandate any specific site, but would require the Rec and Parks Department to develop a list of suitable sites citywide.

What bothers both of us, more than the spread of misinformation, is the divisiveness and complete disregard for human life from some who have contacted us with concerns. We are in the midst of a global public health pandemic, and we know that protecting the thousands of people at high risk for the disease living on San Francisco streets ultimately serves to protect us all.

It’s about time we start treating our homelessness crisis like the emergency it is, and that means exploring all possible solutions.

Sandra Lee Fewer is the Supervisor for District 1, and represents the Richmond District in San Francisco. She has lived in the Richmond District for over 50 years and walks daily in Golden Gate Park. Gordon Mar is the Supervisor for District 4, and represents the Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and teenage daughter near Pine Lake Park. They enjoy recreational bike rides, especially along Great Highway and in Golden Gate Park.

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