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San Francisco Shifts From Trashing Homeless Camps To Sanctioning Them Amid COVID-19

Tents line a gravel sidewalk off Fulton Street near City Hall in San Francisco on May 5. Last week, city staffers started using chalk to draw socially distant spaces along the street for the tents to stay in.
Beth LaBerge
Tents line a gravel sidewalk off Fulton Street near City Hall in San Francisco on May 5. Last week, city staffers started using chalk to draw socially distant spaces along the street for the tents to stay in.

San Francisco is set to enact a homelessness solution that it once thought unthinkable: city-sanctioned open-air encampments.

For years, San Francisco police have ordered tents removed from city streets, even at times slashing them with knives themselves. Public Works employees have tossed the ever-ubiquitous nylon homes of desperate people into dump trucks on a weekly basis.

Last week, San Francisco launched the first of five planned "Safe Sleeping Sites," with the hope that unhoused people would be kept socially distant amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a controlled location, replete with services such as showers and food.

Tents, once an ultimate bogeyman of San Francisco's government, will be revered as lifesaving.

The first location was announced May 6 by Mayor London Breed: an encampment of roughly 90 tents piled nearly on top of each other near the Asian Art Museum — on City Hall's front doorstep — was officially sanctioned and allowed to expand onto Fulton Street, between the museum and the Main Library.

Safe, healthy, social distance may finally come to Civic Center's homeless.

The second city-sanctioned safe sleeping site is already under operation at MLK Park by a local nonprofit, Mother Brown's Dining Room in the city's Bayview neighborhood.

It started as a rogue operation, but after getting the official OK from San Francisco City Hall last week, services, showers and other resources were expected to blow in like a breeze under the sails of that existing effort, Gwendolyn Westbrook, Mother Brown's executive director said.

All of the city-sanctioned sleeping sites were expected to receive those wraparound services.

"I went into the park and set up the tents," said Westbrook, who had help from Bayview advocates Gloria Berry and Michelle Pierce. "The city left us alone, and now, as a matter of fact, they're going to help us a lot."

Three other sites are now under various phases of negotiation to potentially become San Francisco's next wave of safe sleeping sites, public documents and City Hall insiders confirmed:

  • The former Temporary Transbay Terminal at Howard and Main streets
  • Everett Middle School on Church Street
  • A former McDonald's restaurant on Haight and Stanyan streets near an entrance to Golden Gate Park
  • "No one wants to die from this coronavirus"

    Mother Brown's shelter sees nearly 70 people sleeping in it nightly. Westbrook, the shelter's proprietor, said homelessness has grown in the Bayview so precipitously that people sometimes sleep in Mother Brown's dining room and hallways.

    But the COVID-19 pandemic has required many San Francisco establishments to close, or maintain strict social distancing, and Mother Brown's shelter was no different.

    So Westbrook and other women from the Bayview took matters into their own hands. They walked over to what locals call MLK Park – which on city documentation is called Bay View Park – and measured out the distance between plots themselves.

    A renegade camping site was born, from the community, serving the community, with roughly 60 souls sleeping there in tents for weeks.

    "When I came in early, they were all piled up in the [shelter's] doorway ... that wasn't working for us," Westbrook said.

    So she set up the open-air encampment without city approval.

    "No one wants to die from this coronavirus," Westbrook said. "But if I had waited on the city, people out here might've been dead."

    Eddie Tillman, 65, slipped his N95 respirator mask over and under his 49ers hat while sitting inside his blue tent. Tillman said that he is only a few years out of prison, where he was for "decades" after stealing cars in his troubled youth.

    Tillman was raised in the Bayview — it is his home — but his extended family is largely dead or gone. He also said he doesn't want to "burden" his adult children with his own life choices. So Tillman has been living on the streets, slowly withering away, he said. Then he found the MLK Park encampment. It not only saved him from COVID-19, he said, but from his darkest thoughts.

    "I [won't] say I was going to kill myself. But I didn't want to live," he said.

    Now Tillman says he feels upbeat once again and is better prepared to find a job. Work is also a concern for Tasha Swift, 33, who is sleeping in a tent with her boyfriend on the other side of MLK Park.

    Swift is an Oakland native who was living with her sister in San Francisco's Sunnydale neighborhood so the pair could support each other financially. The two parted ways amid some acrimony, and Swift found herself living in her car while still working daily shifts at Split Bread, a San Francisco restaurant.

    In early March, Swift was only one tantalizing paycheck away from saving enough money with her boyfriend to go apartment hunting. The cramped confines of her car would be a dreary distant memory, her locked-up knees could heal. They saved every penny, cut every expense.

    "You know all the things 'normal' people do to make themselves happy? I couldn't do them. I didn't even get one soda. No eating out. I cut everything," she said.

    Then COVID-19 hit. The Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order was instituted March 17, and Split Bread furloughed its workers, at least, Swift still hopes, temporarily. She and her boyfriend reached into their savings to weather the financial storm, their housing dream dashed.

    Living in her car was "really scary, I don't like it. You never know when someone will come up to your window and rob you." But at MLK Park she's safer. Now she feels ready to get back to work.

    "This isn't a whole home, but it feels like it," Swift said.

    Soon, more San Francisco neighborhoods could become homes for other folks who've been sheltering in cars, doorways and tents.

    Citywide sites in the works

    Three sites across San Francisco are in the works to become safe sleeping sites like MLK Park. While not locked down as moving forward — various entities are still negotiating these safe sleep sites — KQED News confirmed that they are under consideration.

    Perhaps the furthest along in planning stages is the former site of the Temporary Transbay Terminal. An agreement between the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which holds the lease to that parcel, and the City and County of San Francisco outlines the city's right to operate it as a safe sleeping site. The document is dated April 14.

    While a neighborhood group represented by lobbyist Chris Gruwell has not formally announced opposition, sources close to the matter say it spells a threat to the Temporary Transbay Terminal safe sleep site.

    "Sitting on an open space in the Temporary Transbay Center is basically the same thing as being in a shelter," said Gloria Li, a neighbor in South of Market who sits on the citizen advisory committee of the TJPA, and wrote to the agency to voice her concerns. "They're sharing common space. It will be a train wreck for everybody."

    San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the South of Market neighborhood where the former Temporary Transbay Terminal resides, does not support the site.

    "I think we should bring people into hotel rooms," Haney said. "That's safer, more cost-effective and better for public health."

    Everett Middle School is another site in the works. After Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's nonbinding resolution called for safe sleeping sites, he requested that the school's parking lot to be open to homeless folks sleeping there.

    "These makeshift encampments lack adequate social distancing as well as access to hygiene and sanitation, creating a public health hazard for encampment occupants and neighbors," Mandelman said in a statement.

    Mark Sanchez, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, agrees. He crafted a resolution for the school board allowing the San Francisco Unified School District to enter into an agreement with the city to allow school property to be used for safe sleeping sites.

    While he emphasized that Everett was not yet a done deal, he did say the district is looking at only "one site" – Everett.

    "It does look like it will be a good site because of the growing number of people on the streets in that area," he said, adding that ultimately it will need more outreach to neighbors and a vote by the Board of Education to enact.

    The last site in the works is probably the least far along: a former McDonald's site in the Haight neighborhood, near Golden Gate Park, on Haight and Stanyan street. Supervisor Dean Preston has publicly touted the site, but did not respond to KQED News to speak about the effort.

    "Camp Breed" echoes Loma Prieta past

    At City Hall's front door, just past its grand lawn, lies a homeless encampment of roughly 90 tents sitting nearly on top of one another, bunched together in a nearly textbook example of how not to socially distance safely amid a pandemic.

    That worries Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness. San Francisco police have parked at the encampment, and barricades have gone up, keeping people sleeping in tents penned into a tight area next to the Asian Art Museum.

    "They're still being contained in these small areas so they can't socially distance," Cutler said.

    A woman named Stephanie, who declined to give her last name, is from Daly City but went to high school in San Francisco. She had an apartment in San Francisco before falling into a drug habit and becoming homeless. She lives in the encampment near the Asian Art Museum.

    Stephanie wishes San Francisco would bring more services into the encampment. She spent time in a local hospital for a newly discovered diabetes diagnosis, and said navigating city services to get shelter is difficult.

    "I've had highs and lows. I've had five years of sobriety," Stephanie said. Now, though, she wishes she could have "harm reduction services, support services, just easy access to vocational training," so she can work.

    Brandon Conrad, 29, from Pacifica, also struggles with a drug problem. His mother thinks he has housing, and he doesn't want to tell her he's homeless. He's trying to help himself, but wishes the city could give him a leg up to stay safe from COVID-19 during the pandemic.

    For years, San Francisco police have ordered tents removed from city streets, even at times slashing them with knives themselves. Public Works employees have tossed the ever-ubiquitous nylon homes of desperate people into dump trucks on a weekly basis.
    Beth LaBerge / KQED
    For years, San Francisco police have ordered tents removed from city streets, even at times slashing them with knives themselves. Public Works employees have tossed the ever-ubiquitous nylon homes of desperate people into dump trucks on a weekly basis.

    "They won't give the shelter. They won't give us no hotel vouchers because not everybody here has a so-called chronic diagnosis," he said. "You know, we're just kind of stuck."

    Without adequate staffing, Conrad said, the encampment is "dangerous."

    Perhaps its most disturbing feature is a single bathroom for its 200 homeless dwellers.

    "A hundred tents and just one porta-potty in it? The bathrooms are all the way filled up with, you know, remains. It's just disgusting. Absolutely disgusting," Conrad said.

    People in the homeless community talking to Cutler have come up with a new name for the encampment Stephanie and Conrad live in, due to its proximity to City Hall: "Camp Breed."

    "Camp Breed is making it even more challenging to provide needed resources for people," Cutler said.

    That nickname is derived from "Camp Agnos," a homeless encampment in front of City Hall that arose in 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake made San Francisco homeless shelters unlivable.

    The growing homeless camps also torpedoed Mayor Art Agnos' second mayoral run, as his political opponents laid the burgeoning homeless problem at his feet.

    "As Yogi Berra said famously, it's deja vu all over again!" Agnos said.

    Agnos likened the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on homeless people to what happened during his tenure, post-earthquake. Shelters were unavailable then, much as they are now.

    "The city is struggling with a much bigger number of people than I had to deal with," he added. So will "Camp Breed" also torpedo Breed's political future? Agnos didn't think so.

    And touching on the fight between the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor Breed – the former who wants the homeless to be housed in hotels, and the latter who is enacting safe sleeping sites while calling hotels for homeless unreasonable – Agnos was magnanimous to all involved.

    "There are nuances between all their strategies, but they're all working their asses off," Agnos said.

    Copyright 2020 KQED

    Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez