"Some people say the city’s not doing anything around homelessness — but now you can see how much we were doing," says San Francisco's former homeless czar Jeff Kositsky, who's now taken charge of the city's program to tackle tent encampments. The number tents and makeshift shelters along the streets of the Tenderloin has grown three-fold since the pandemic began, leading to a lawsuit filed against the city this week by the neighborhood merchants' association and UC Hastings. And now Mayor London Breed and other city leaders are laying out a plan to address the issue and move people to condoned camping areas.
On Monday we heard from SF Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson that the majority of people now camped in the area between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Library in Civic Center are recent arrivals from out of town. And while Kositsky and the Healthy Streets Operations Center acknowledge this is the case for some of the campers, it may not be the majority. As the Chronicle reports today, the reasons for the uptick in encampments are several: the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and its programs to move people into housing have slowed down, and shelter space has diminished after outbreaks of COVID-19 and social distancing being imposed; also, street addicts are reportedly moving closer to where a dwindling drug supply is available.
Regardless of where people have arrived from or if they were already living in San Francisco somewhere, the Tenderloin has become ground zero for an obvious explosion of encampments, causing residents and businesses to sound alarm bells with the city more than they usually do. The neighborhood has reportedly seen a 285-percent increase in tent encampments, while the city as a whole has seen a 71-percent increase.
The new 31-page plan, which can be read here, calls for an initial focus on 13 specific blocks in the Tenderloin where encampments have become the most problematic.
"A team of community care ambassadors will operate in the Tenderloin taking a measured block-by-block approach to supporting neighboring community members in social distancing, accessing pertinent resources, and participate in light street cleaning," the report reads.
And, beginning on Monday, May 11, some homeless people will be systematically moved to a "Safe Sleeping Village" at the current Fulton Street Mall encampment, which will include lines painted on the ground to ensure distancing of tents. The city has already installed water fountains at fire hydrants there, and added Pit Stop restrooms — and there are a total of 90 tents already there.
"We are committed to ensuring our most vulnerable neighbors are safe and have access to the resources they need to stay healthy during this public health crisis," Breed said in a statement. "By implementing this plan, we can help improve health and safety of everyone living in the Tenderloin."
District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and others on the Board of Supervisors have been pushing Mayor Breed to move every homeless person off the street and into a hotel room, but now it seems no longer clear how many rooms would be needed even if the city tried to do this. As of last week, the city had reportedly leased around 2,700 rooms for use in the housing of homeless people and SRO residents who either need to self-isolate for health reasons, or who have tested positive for COVID-19 and do need hospitalization. The Board last month passed an emergency resolution calling for the leasing of over 8,000 hotel rooms.
Three weeks ago, Haney penned an opinion piece in the Examiner calling for urgent city intervention. "In our downtown neighborhoods, it can be impossible for residents to leave their homes to walk to the store and maintain distance," he wrote. "Sidewalks are often blocked by people forced to live in tightly packed tents and large groups of people continuing to congregate."
"At the end of the day this is not just a tent problem. It’s a people problem," says Kositsky to the Chronicle, "and we need to meet their needs. This is about helping everybody, sheltered and unsheltered."
Kositsky recently changed jobs at City Hall, after four years running the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. In early March he announced he'd be moving into the role heading the Healthy Streets Operations Center, which is a joint effort between his former department and the SFPD. The move, as he told the Chronicle in March, was at the behest of the mayor following a critical report by the Local Homeless Coordinating Board regarding the city's tent-clearing practices.
"Conditions continue to be bad in the streets," Kositsky said at the time. "Things got better in 2018, but then worse in 2019, and the mayor wants me to focus on this."
What was clear by March was that encampments around the city were already on the rise before the global crisis hit — the number of encampments with six tents or more rose from two at the beginning of last year to 15 by December. But now so many are concentrated where they were not before — right in the heart of the city.
"The Tenderloin Plan is one of the ways the City is protecting the health of people experiencing homelessness," says the new report. "The City has moved 1,053 people experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms and has established 120 shelter-in-place RVs and trailers for people experiencing homelessness in District 10... The model of the Tenderloin Plan will be used to inform and create comprehensive plans for other neighborhoods down the road throughout the City heavily impacted by the ongoing public health crisis."