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Supervisor Puts Tent Encampments on Notice, But Where Will the Residents Go?

For Mark Farrell's ballot initiative to actually work, the city needs more housing. He hasn’t figured that part out yet.

Tents along Shotwell Street in April.


On a clear evening in May, a group of Mission district merchants, neighbors, and first responders gathered to discuss the problem of tent encampments. The phones at the SFPD’s Mission Station had been ringing off the hook, Captain Daniel Perea told the room, with nearly 6,000 calls about the homeless in the last three months alone. The meeting started off with momentum. "Here's how neighbors can help: We need written statements from merchants to include in police reports," Perea told crowd members as they sipped wine and munched on pastries brought along by Tartine's Vinny Eng. "Describe what people are doing and what they are wearing." But as the meeting wore on and neighbors piled on questions—"How is this permitted to keep existing every day?”—Perea seemed to acknowledge the futility of enforcing the law on tent dwellers who, when ordered to move, simply return a few hours later. "What we are accomplishing is displacement," he said.

One month later, District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell announced his intention to make that displacement permanent. Last week, Farrell—joined by Supervisors Malia Cohen, Katy Tang, and Scott Wiener—added a measure to the November ballot that would give the city a new protocol for clearing tents. The proposed addition to the Police Code, called the Promotion of Safe and Open Sidewalks, allows officials to clear an encampment and cart away people's belongings to storage—provided that they are given 24 hours notice and that housing or shelter is available for the members of the encampment. No one can be forced to go to a shelter, of course; you could think of this approach as assistance by threat. "We're trying to create an incentive system where people will go into housing or shelter,” Farrell explains. "It's available; it's your choice not to go, but we are going to take the encampment down after a period of time." 

There are many rubs to this effort. The first one is that there simply aren’t enough housing or shelter units available to people who are currently camping out on the streets. A back-of-the-envelope estimate in the Chronicle puts the city's "hard-core street population" at about 1,750, but the number of year-round shelter beds maybe cracks 1,300, by our rough tally. Farrell acknowledges the short supply of housing. "This measure is not a panacea," he says. "It's ultimately about building housing exits"—that is, permanent landing spots for homeless people outside the shelter system. To do that, Farrell is cosponsoring a proposal for another November ballot measure, a three-quarter-percent sales tax that would send $150 million to the General Fund annually. The idea is to budget $50 million of that for homeless outreach and housing exits every year. It's a windfall that the newly minted Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing very much wants, but it's still theoretical, and DHSH director Jeff Kositsky says it's too soon to say how best the money would be spent. Which means Farrell's tent-sweeping measure could sit on the books for a few years before it sends anyone into a meaningful housing exit.

A patchwork of existing laws already adds up to a virtual ban on tent encampments in most cases; this measure goes a step further and makes them explicitly illegal. The main thing it does, though, is set up the parameters of when and how to take down encampments. Having a clear guideline in itself could be useful, and perhaps prevent the kind of controversy that San Franciscans experienced in the run-up to the Super Bowl, when the Department of Public Works and other agencies kept shuffling tents around—then, a month later, proceeded to demolish the infamous camp along Division Street.

Think of Farrell's tent measure
as the stick to Supervisor David Campos's carrot. On June 14 Campos spurred the board to pass an ordinance calling for six more Homeless Navigation Centers—which are model shelters that pack in services aimed at getting people into housing, but are still, at the end of the day, only shelters. (Plus, the law permits converting existing shelters into Navigation Centers, so the overall number of beds doesn't necessarily grow.) And unlike the inaugural Navigation Center, the new ones don't have to have housing exits guaranteed. Which all adds up to more of the same: Without additional permanent housing to navigate people into, the vaunted "navigation center" method loses its meaning

So on one end you have moderates like Farrell shooing people off of the streets, and on the other end you have progressives corralling them into Navigation Centers. Both measures address parts of the machine that must function in order to get people into housing—but both leave the most crucial aspect of the system, the housing part, unresolved. And the housing part is where the city is hurting, as Coalition on Homelessness executive director Jennifer Friedenbach points out. Right now there are 696 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people in the pipeline for 2016 to 2022. By her count, that's "about 25 percent of what was produced over the past six years." 

Back when San Francisco had a Redevelopment Agency, the city saw $40 to $50 million per year allocated toward overall affordable housing production, recalls Don Falk, CEO of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Center. That money is now gone, about half of it replaced by the Housing Trust Fund. Could the potential $50 million in sales tax revenue make up for lost funds? When we put this question to Kositsky, the new homelessness department head, he laughs. "From your mouth to God's ears," he says. The money wouldn't go far if the city spent it subsidizing construction of new housing, which might cost the city $250,000 per unit just to get it built, by Falk's estimate—and that's before you subsidize anyone's rent or add support services. Instead, the $50 million could go toward things like rent subsidies in private housing, the Rapid Rehousing program, building more Navigation Centers, and expanding the Homeless Outreach Team. "The need is obviously great," says Kositsky. "$50 million would go a long way."

But setting up homeless people in existing buildings—good idea though it may be—just kicks the can down the road in another way, Falk points out. "If we take existing housing and make it available to homeless people, it's not available to other low-income people," he says. "There's a shell game aspect to it. If we don't build new affordable housing, then we're just housing person A at the same time that we're denying housing to person B." 

That's the newly opened Civic Center Navigation Center in a nutshell. The Navigation Center opened yesterday in a formerly seedy residential hotel with a ceremony attended by Mayor Ed Lee. A shelter loaded up with services may be a big improvement over the inhospitable living conditions at the SRO it replaced, but it essentially traded one population on the skids for another. "Unless we get at the root of the problem, which is building more permanent housing for lower-income people and homeless people, we're not going to have enough of these exits," says Falk.

Without a replenished pipeline of new places to house people, Farrell's tent-clearing measure starts to look like more of the same tent rearranging—just on a longer timetable than the way the cops are doing it. Instead of tents returning in a matter of hours, maybe they pop back up in a few days or weeks, after their residents tire of living in a shelter without their stuff. Asked about that scenario, Farrell acknowledges that it's a possibility. But he sticks to his talking points. "We want to incentivize people to stay in housing and make it less convenient for them to be in tent encampments," he says. Later, he acknowledges the very visible flaw in his premise: "This measure is not going to take away tent encampments overnight. But it creates a framework that hopefully, sooner rather than later, the city can use to get these individuals into shelter or housing.” 

Housing that still remains to be seen.

: This story originally stated that tent encampments are already illegal in San Francisco. In fact, though tent encampments violate the law in most cases, there are still some technical exceptions, which the current ballot measure would eliminate. We regret the error. 


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