Homeless issues at Castro library addressed

This article first appeared in The Bay Area Reporter on June 29, 2016
By Seth Hemmelgarn


A worker from San Francisco Public Works does an early morning cleaning Sunday of the exterior grounds of the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco officials and others are working to address homeless encampments and other issues that have persisted for years around the Castro district's Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library.

Gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro, said problems in the area around the library, which is at 1 Jose Sarria Court, include auto break-ins, drug use, "a highly unsanitary encampment" at the library and an "open air bike chop shop," where stolen bicycles are taken apart so their parts can be sold.

Wiener, who's been criticized for his efforts to get tent encampments off the city's sidewalks, said, "It's ridiculous. We just cannot allow that kind of situation to continue."

"It's neither progressive, nor humane, nor safe, nor healthy to allow people to live and ultimately, to deteriorate and die in these tent encampments," Wiener said. "We need to get people help." The solution, he said, is "to get people off the streets and into shelter," and into housing that addresses substance abuse and mental health issues.

"It's a fallacy that there's no place for people to go," he said.

Wiener said among other things, "I've been working with police to be more consistent and proactive there, which they have been."

He's also "requested that the Department of Public Works make this the first stop of the morning for the cleaning crew." Homeless outreach workers are also coming out to the site, he said.

"I think it is better than it was before, but it is still not perfect," Wiener said.

He added, "If the library brings in security, if we continue to have consistency by the Department of Public Works and by the police, and if the library makes the physical changes" needed to dissuade homeless people, "I'm not saying the problem is going to go away entirely, but the situation will get better."

Michelle Jeffers, a San Francisco Public Library spokeswoman, said the library's now sending health and safety associates, many of whom are formerly homeless, to the Eureka Valley branch. The associates help guide people to where they can get services.

Jeffers said there have been concerns about people using the area outside "in less than desirable ways when the library's closed."

Those have included people climbing onto the building's roof and sleeping there, probably because it seemed safer than sleeping on the street, Jeffers said. The library worried about liability, though, and access to the roof has been closed off.

Jeffers said, "We're working on the lighting out there. Because of the way that block is, it felt very dark and felt very not safe to neighbors."

There's also a syringe disposal container at the site.

Additionally, off-duty police are patrolling the neighborhood and are including the library after hours in their watch.

"I hesitate to say that we have a solution, but we certainly don't want to change the way we provide library services," Jeffers said.

"We feel we are a welcoming environment for everybody, regardless of their socioeconomic status, and whether they're experiencing homelessness," she said.

Jeffers worked to make it clear how seriously she and others take the issue.

"We feel really passionate about making sure that people have dignity and that they have access to services that can change their lives, which libraries can do for people," she said, weeping as she spoke.

"I get really emotional" about the issue, she said.

When asked about what needs to be done to solve homelessness, Crispin Hollings, a gay man who's board president of the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, said, "We need to get a lot more serious about constructing housing."

"The city really is not doing very much to build more housing," Hollings said. "... Every time we come up with a way to increase density in the city, there's a lot of pushback on that."

Kimberly Reeves, 20, who said she's been homeless for 10 years and has been on her own after parting with her abusive mother, was sitting at the library recently with several other people. She didn't talk about more housing.

She said she first came to the spot at the library about a month and a half ago and returns to it because people know they can find her there.

"Lately, I've been sleeping here, but the cops have been getting on people's asses and waking people up at 5 in the morning," Reeves, who identifies as pansexual, said.

Asked what it would take to end homelessness for her, Reeves said, "I don't really know," but she's waiting for her chance "to make something out of my life."

She's a singer, and she said someone recently offered to give her time in a recording studio.

"I'm hoping that works out," Reeves, who has blue and pinkish-purple hair, said.

In terms of looking for other work, she said, "It would have to be work that I don't hate doing and accepts me for how I look. I'm not going to change how I look to be society's idea of having your life together."

Police Captain Dan Perea, who heads the Mission police station, which includes the Castro, didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.

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