A group calling themselves Concerned Citizens of the Haight is suing the City of San Francisco in federal court over a sanctioned "Safe Sleeping Village" that is set to open Friday on the former McDonald's lot at Haight and Stanyan.
The group is asking a judge to block the homeless encampment from opening, and they filed their suit on Tuesday, as the Mercury News reports.
"If the City is allowed to unsafely house a large number of people in a small space in the middle of a densely-populated residential and business district, the result will be a high risk of transmission of COVID19 among the Campers and among the residents, merchants, and property owners of the surrounding area," the complaint reads.
The sanctioned encampment will be the second so-called "Safe Sleeping Village" the city has established amid what seems to be a growing homeless crisis on city streets — and one that the fire chief has openly blamed on the Board of Supervisors' pledge to house homeless people in hotels during the pandemic. The first such encampment opened adjacent to City Hall Plaza, between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum, two weeks ago, with room for 50 tents.
A third sanctioned camp is expected to open between the Castro and Mission districts in the coming weeks, in a city effort to provide socially distanced tent space off of city sidewalks.
Phil Matier reported earlier today in the Chronicle that a group going by a different name, Safe Healthy Haight, formed earlier this month in order to address the growing problem of sidewalk camping in the neighborhood.
Group representative Michelle Leighton tells the paper that they partly blame district Supervisor Dean Preston, who along with his supporters have boasted about handing out over 1,000 tents to unhoused people. Tent encampments have since sprouted along Broderick and Masonic streets, and elsewhere in the area.
"We have had a problem with homelessness for some time, but this is the first time we are seeing tents in the neighborhood," Leighton tells Matier.
Preston defended the handing out of tents, saying, "If activists had not handed out tents, hundreds — perhaps thousands — more homeless people who have been pushed out of shelters would be huddled without shelter on our streets, a greater danger to themselves and to all of us."
Currently the city has over 2,200 hotel rooms reserved for homeless people — particularly the most vulnerable — in need of sheltering space. About half were occupied as of this week, but as Mission Local reports today, three Navigation Centers are being cleared of residents, all of whom are moving to empty hotel rooms. Mayor London Breed has previously said that homeless people currently in the city's systems, and those who either test positive for the coronavirus or need special care, would be given priority.
Hotel shelter space is currently being managed by city nonprofits who typically work with the homeless, but it presents a new logistical challenge. As an aide to Breed tells the Chronicle, "Our nonprofit service providers who have the expertise to help us run these hotels are doing incredible work, but they are stretched to the limit."
The Embarcadero Navigation Center, as well as a 162-bed Palace of Fine Arts shelter that's in preparation, are both going to be used as "post-COVID" recovery locales for the homeless not in need of hospital care.
Two weeks ago, an aide for Preston told Hoodline that they were optimistic about the Haight and Stanyan sleeping site, saying that it would "bring some much-needed relief to a very exacerbated homelessness crisis."
But now it seems that, like residents of other neighborhoods, frustration levels are rising as the visibility — and likely the numbers — of homeless individuals has increased since the pandemic began. This can also be blamed on shelters being emptied and/or downsized to create social distance, but critics like SF Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, who two weeks ago said that the promise of free hotel stays had lured homeless individuals and the recently incarcerated from far and wide. "People are coming from all over place — Sacramento, Lake County, Bakersfield," Nicholson said, noting an anecdote about jails in other counties telling released prisoners to come to SF for a hotel room.
A fire department paramedic also told the Chronicle that many of these individuals are honest, saying things like "How do I get a hotel room?" when they call 911, sometimes coughing and claiming to have COVID-19.
Currently, the tents in the Upper Haight far outnumber the 40 spaces that will come available on Friday at the former McDonald's site — which itself, for years, was considered a blight and a crime magnet in the neighborhood. Leighton tells the Chronicle that she's heard of no plan to address the tent camping around the neighborhood — and Mayor Breed is facing more criticism from supervisors and other critics right now about her failure to house the homeless, so the clearing of tent encampments would be viewed as inhumane at the moment, with no shelter space to move people to.
On Tuesday we learned of texts from Breed that were revealed through a Sunshine Ordinance request that showed her frequently requesting the clearing of tents in visible places around downtown, saying things to City Hall colleagues like, "Let’s keep that block safe and clean," and "Please get the panhandlers off the mediums [sic] on Haight and Octavia."
What has become clear in the last two months is that the political and public health issue of homelessness will remain front and center in the public's evaluation of the city's response to the pandemic — and no amount of success when it comes to mitigating outbreaks or keeping the death count low will change that.