Advocate for ‘safe organized spaces’ pitches temporary homeless village on Tenderloin parking lot

Armed with jasmine spray, Amy Farah Weiss explained her vision on a recent afternoon for transforming a Tenderloin parking lot...

Armed with jasmine spray, Amy Farah Weiss explained her vision on a recent afternoon for transforming a Tenderloin parking lot into a homeless “stewardship village” to address the apparent unmet needs in the neighborhood.

Weiss, the former mayoral candidate and Bay Area native, wants the city-owned parking lot at Jones and Turk streets to become a village of small sleeping cabins for up to 15 homeless people with amenities like a garden and bathroom. The site would exist temporarily until construction begins on the expected affordable housing development.

As the founder and director of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, Weiss searches for sites just like this one and attempts to build community support to transform them into spaces that could help The City’s most in need. She wouldn’t mind the title “patron saint of underutilized spaces.”

Weiss has long called for The City to adopt this model of “transitional villages,” a step between living in tents in some alleyway and a city shelter.

In 2017, she launched a pilot transitional village with a population of one homeless person on a lot behind the Impact Hub SF, a co-working event space at 1885 Mission St., which agreed to the arrangement.

She acknowledges that since it’s a city-owned parking lot, for the idea to work it’s up to The City and residents to back it and that is what she is working to achieve.

“This is an epicenter of unmet need,” Weiss said during a recent interview with the San Francisco Examiner at the 180 Jones St. lot. “Are there not unmet needs around here?”

As Weiss discussed her plans, she demonstrated how she sprays jasmine oil and water in the air as therapy to help calm those stressed out in the area, including two passersby who she met at the lot and told them her idea.

Her push to transform sites into temporary shelter for the homeless is meant to address the large gap in the supply for shelter and services. The need is increasing, judging by preliminary data from a biennial homeless count that found The City’s homeless population has grown by 17 percent since 2017. There are more than 1,000 people on the wait-list for a 90-day shelter bed.

“There is so much need, especially in the Tenderloin,” Weiss continued. “What goes with it, though, is vitality. It is unmet need and vitality. It means there is a vibrant spirit and community in the midst of it all.

“But if you didn’t have as many unmet needs, then that vitality and that community could come through. And there is almost nothing that you can’t get through if you have a strong community experience and a place to belong.”

This underutilized space was brought to Weiss’s attention following a recent presentation at the Tenderloin’s Yellow Bike Project about how to create “safe organized spaces” by one of the attendees who thought the 17-space, 4,743-square-foot parking lot may be the perfect fit.

Weiss investigated and believes it is the right spot for what she calls the “Stewardship Village and Community Wellness Hub.”

“Put on your imagination goggles,” Weiss said.

She’s estimated her plans for the site would cost $500,000 in the first year, that’s $335,200 in setup costs and $164,800 in operating costs.

The setup costs includes up to 15 “emergency sleeping cabins” five feet apart, as required by state code, a shower and laundry trailer and a toilet. It also includes optional items like $100,000 for a food truck for meals and possible employment.

The estimates includes two staff members would serve as stewards of the site and earn about $20 an hour. She also envisions residents of the site could earn stipends when living there.

The City obtained the site as part of a development agreement and the Mayor’s Office of Housing recently issued a solicitation for a developer to build affordable housing on it.

In 2017, the City and the developer of 950-974 Market Street reached an agreement where requirements for inclusionary housing were satisfied through the deeding of the parking lot to The City and paying $13.5 million into the 180 Jones Fund to help pay for construction of at least 60 housing units for low-income households.

Proposals were due in April and the Mayor’s Office of Housing is scheduled to select the development team mid-June. The site is currently being operated as a surface parking lot on a month-to-month basis.

Weiss estimates it could take at least one to three years before the project breaks ground there.

One of Weiss’s supporters is Jim Yaser, 57, who she met after observing him cleaning up litter around the lot. Yaser said he lives with family in Burlingame and drives to the Tenderloin to visit his girlfriend who recently became homeless. He said he helps out around the lot, where he parks his car.

“It could actually help the people that are living on the street,” Yaser said. “They are being harassed by police officers every morning. They are already stressed out. They are under a lot of pressure. They are hungry.”

He also said that there is a need for public restrooms since people sometimes use the lot as a bathroom.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin, said he hadn’t yet spoken to Weiss about her idea, but that “I have spoken to community members and groups who I believe were hoping for a temporary park at that site.”

Curtis Bradford, co-Chair of the Tenderloin People’s Congress, a group of tenant organizations, told the San Francisco Examiner Friday that since two of the neighborhood’s parks are closed for improvements the plan has been to use the parking lot for a dog park.

Bradford, however, said that since meeting with Weiss to hear her proposal he has invited her to attend the group’s June 10 meeting to pitch her idea.

“I have no idea how receptive the community will be to the plan at this stage,” Bradford wrote in an email. “I can say that personally, I think that the idea of creating these safe spaces for our unhoused neighbors in any under-utilized space is a great idea. We are at a crisis and need to consider all options.”

“I’m not sure if 180 Jones is the right site, mostly because this community process and proposal began some time ago,” he added.

Weiss said Friday that her plan could incorporate dog use and plans to make her best pitch at the meeting.

“We just have to offer the possibility and hope the community sees a benefit in it,” Weiss said.

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