This article first appeared on KQED News.
By Ted Goldberg
January 25, 2016
San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener says the city needs to find a prompt and “humane” way to eliminate tent encampments that house a growing number of homeless people.
The growing presence of tent camps in San Francisco “represents our city’s failure to provide adequate housing/shelter and assistance for those who want help, as well as a failure to make clear to those who refuse help that tents on our sidewalks and in our public spaces are unacceptable” Wiener wrote in a letter last week (embedded below) to the heads of six city agencies.
“These tents are a public safety and a public health problem for the people living in them and for our neighborhoods,” Wiener added in an interview.
His remarks provoked outrage from one of the city’s leading homeless advocates.
“My chin dropped,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“I thought it was in particular bad taste given how much people are suffering,” Friedenbach said. “He’s talking about ripping those tents from people who have no other choice but to sleep on the street.”
The tents give the homeless cover from the rain, Friedenbach said.
“Taking away people’s tents right now in the middle of these storms, that’s about as mean-spirited as you can get,” she said.
Among other requests, Wiener is asking city agencies for an estimate of how many tents are on the streets and the number of people living in them. While tents have appeared on city streets for decades, city officials say the number has grown in recent years and the onset of this winter’s rains has expanded their presence even more.
In the Mission alone, tent encampments have grown along parts of Division, Cesar Chavez, Vermont, 13th and 16th streets, as well as San Bruno Avenue.
That has increased the visibility of San Francisco’s homeless but does not necessarily mean a large increase in the population of people living on the streets. There were 6,686 homeless people in San Francisco at the beginning of 2015, according to last year’s count. That’s up 250 from two years earlier.
Sam Dodge, who as director of Mayor Ed Lee’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement is the city’s point man on homeless issues, says his counterparts in Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle have noticed similar growth in tent encampments.
Wiener says he’s not talking about bulldozing the tents. Instead, he wants the city to create a plan to transition homeless people living in tents into shelters or other forms of housing.
“The tents need to go away as part of that process,” he said. “It’s not an acceptable state of affairs and we need to put an end to it in a very humane way.”
Wiener and other city officials say San Francisco needs more facilities like the Navigation Center in the Mission district, a service center that aims to provide homeless people with permanent housing.
It makes sense that homeless people would use tents for cover from the rain, Dodge said, but they can make people living on the street more vulnerable.
“I’ve seen at least four different times where someone burnt out someone else’s tent,” Dodge said. “I’ve heard reports of women living in the streets and being assaulted in their tents.”
In fact, Allison Sparrow, a 33-year-old homeless woman, was an apparent homicide victim in a tent near 16th and Harrison streets on Dec. 18.
City officials say there are beds in shelters that are not always used at night that could serve homeless people now living in tents. There are about 30 to 90 shelter vacancies every night, Dodge said.
But tents provide space for someone’s belongings, where a shelter might not. Many city facilities allow people to bring in only two large bags.
“Shelter works for a lot of people,” Dodge said. “I think we need to really expand options for other people that shelter isn’t working for.”