San Francisco homeless advocates fight tent ban, call for shelter

Critics say a Nov. 8 ballot measure that authorizes police to dismantle San Francisco tent encampments with 24-hour notice won’t reduce the homeless population and argue the city should focus instead on increasing legal shelter options.

Proposition Q, written by San Francisco Board of Supervisors District 2 Representative Mark Farrell, fast-tracks tent removal to 24 hours under the condition that occupants are given a shelter bed for at least one night. Until now, when to break up encampments has been left to the city’s discretion.

In a recent campaign ad, Farrell said he wrote the proposition because, “tent encampments are incredibly dangerous and unhealthy places to live.”

Prop Q seeks to address growing concerns of San Franciscans who have seen tents spread into their neighborhoods in recent years. From 2013 to 2015 there was a 35-percent increase in sidewalk obstruction and other quality of life law violations by the homeless, most of which were reported by residents to police, according to a new report.

Prop Q’s slogan, “Housing Not Tents,” appeals to those looking for humane solutions to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. But critics argue that Prop Q creates no new shelter or housing opportunities and could exacerbate the problem.

“All it would do,” said Amy Farah Weiss of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, a nonprofit dedicated to finding San Francisco’s unsheltered population safe places to sleep, “[is] increase costly misery without any of the outcomes that we want.”

To provide tent inhabitants the shelter it promises, Prop Q’s critics say, the city would need to send others back onto the streets, leaving the number of homeless sleeping on San Francisco streets unchanged.

Weiss and others say the lack of shelter space makes it difficult for the city’s homeless to find exits off the streets and get the health services they need.

San Francisco’s shelter system currently offers 1,200 beds for an estimated 6,700 homeless, leaving thousands to sleep in tents, cars or on sidewalks. The waitlist for a 90-day shelter bed is currently 877 people, and first-come, first-serve one-night shelters turn people away on a nightly basis.

The San Francisco Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing, launched in July, is working on a plan to significantly increase the number of long-term housing units for the homeless over the next four years. In the meantime, advocates are pushing for more immediate shelter solutions.

“There’s going to be thousands of people on our streets for months to years,” Weiss said. “So instead of ignoring that fact, let’s say that everyone in San Francisco deserves access to secure sleep.”

Last month, Weiss, speaking at a symposium on tent encampments at a Mission District art gallery, suggested the city designate outdoor spaces for homeless to sleep temporarily, outfit them with toilets and running water, and encourage positive relations between occupants and neighborhood residents. Weiss believes her solution would lessen the “pain points” felt by both the homeless and their housed neighbors.

Weiss recently had a chance to test her theory. In September, she delivered a portable toilet to Box City, a 7th Street shanty village with roughly 20 inhabitants. The gift came with a stipulation that occupants maintain it, keep the adjacent bike path free of clutter, and discourage theft and other illegal activities.

According to Weiss, the toilet has stayed in good repair, and gone are the 140 pounds of human waste that accumulated on sidewalks each week before it arrived.

Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department of Homelessness, said the city in June had approved six new Navigation Centers, which unlike traditional shelters, provide services like kitchens, in-and-out privileges and the ability to sleep alongside a partner.

“The idea of making a warm and welcoming place that approaches people who have long rejected our system, but are clearly in need of extraordinary aid, is essential,” Dodge said.

Dodge also stressed that shelter expansion is just one piece of the puzzle, along with long-term housing and social services, in solving San Francisco’s homelessness crisis.

While the city has been wary of supporting tent encampments in the past, Dodge has had conversations with policymakers from Seattle and Portland, who are experimenting with legalized homeless camps, and said he is open to the idea.

Many San Francisco residents feel the city needs to do more to discourage encampments.

“It has never, ever been like this,” said Candace Combs, president of the Mission Creek Merchants Association, which endorses Prop Q. “The city needs to step up yesterday.”

Combs, a 15-year San Francisco resident, who has witnessed bike theft and drug abuse in encampments, said they have impacted her business, a day spa, and made her fear for her safety.

Sean Karlin, a filmmaker and member of the India Basin Neighborhood Association, said he thought Prop Q was a step in the right direction given increasing tensions.

“I don’t want the lack of a perfect solution to stop us from doing something that could be good,” Karlin said.


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