A Place to Shelter: San Francisco’s First Sanctioned Tent Encampments

Kathy Novak
June 03, 2020 - 9:01 am

    All this week, KCBS is airing a special series, “A Place to Shelter,” examining how the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting San Francisco to adapt its approach to the homelessness crisis. Part One reported on how coronavirus has changed the situation for some people living on the streets, and Part Two looked at the area of town that has become an epicenter of the converging crises.

    In Part Three, KCBS Radio’s Kathy Novak visits the city’s first “Safe Sleeping Village.” 

    Social distancing has left people experiencing homelessness with even more limited options for a place to sleep. 

    Shannon Steelman was on the streets and decided to join friends who had pitched tents near the Asian Art Museum. One day, they noticed city workers starting a project.

    “We watched the city slowly progress to building like a little sanctuary for us,” she recalls. “They started putting up bathrooms and hand washing things. And we saw them starting to put boxes on the street right here. One day the group came up to us and asked if we wanted to do permanent housing and I was like, ‘Yeah! I do. I don’t know how to get myself into a normal living situation.’”

    It is not what most would call a normal living situation, but for Shannon it is cleaner and safer. Now she has a space that belongs to her and is six feet away from her neighbor’s. 

    “I’m really grateful that I have my own little spot to take care of myself, and bathrooms where I don’t have to go to a public place to use the bathroom. And water access. It’s just really nice. I feel like I’m living almost like a normal person, in a way.” 

    The non-profit Urban Alchemy manages the site. Among the rules: no open drug use or sales. Temperature checks and masks are required. In exchange, residents get space, bathrooms and meals. 

    Urban Alchemy CEO Lena Miller adds that they also get sleep. “Not only can people be safe in their tent and not worry about anybody preying on them or attacking them, but no one’s gonna steal their stuff,” she says. 

    The tent village is a first for San Francisco. 

    Donald Garrison had been living on the streets of the Tenderloin for more than a year, and knows it is a change for the city.

    “It’s a big step from six weeks ago when you couldn’t even be down here during the day with a blanket over you if you were cold because it was considered an encampment and so you had to leave until nighttime - to this. You know what I mean? It’s a big huge change.”

    It is also a sort of live experiment.

    “This is just the raw uncut first version and then we continue to get better and better,” says Miller.

    It is a model for a second site that recently opened in the Haight, to the dismay of some neighbors including Michelle Leighton, a member of the newly-formed community group, Safe Healthy Haight. 

    “It’s in the middle of a residential neighborhood, surrounded by two commercial corridors. It has the largest number of activities for children in the upper Haight,” Leighton says.

    Amoeba Music’s Joe Goldmark is also worried about the effect on stores like his. He says business was already down because of a public works project, then came the pandemic. 

    “We’ve been dealing with it at Amoeba for 20 years,” he says. “We’ve coexisted just fine with the homeless, but now the city wants to put the camp right next door to us 24/7. We fear for the health of the neighborhood.”

    There are more tents on Haight sidewalks since the pandemic. The new village has room for about 40 of them. 

    Sherilyn Adams, Executive Director of Larkin Street Youth Services, which is helping run the site along with Homeless Youth Alliance, says ultimately, people need affordable, permanent housing. 

    “The only way for folks to not be in tents in front of people’s houses is for them to have a place to live,” says Adams. 

    Other neighbors in the Haight support the village. It is expected to be in place for three to six months. 

    Jacob Corbin got a temporary spot at the Civic Center site. He says it is better than being out on the streets, but raises a point on the minds of many, “if they can spend all this money on this, it seems like it would be a whole lot easier to get a motel room.”

    The city is giving some people hotel rooms. But it says finding appropriate staff is one of the reasons it cannot provide the 8,250 rooms the Board of Supervisors required in an emergency ordinance. 

    “Sure. Yeah. Nothing but hotels. That would be great,” says Miller. “Can we do it tomorrow? How many hotel rooms can we get? If you can’t now you got to deal with what’s in front of you. This is in front of us. We got to do something. And if that’s not going to open up and it’s not going to open up now, then we need to do something else now.”

    The head of the city’s Healthy Streets Operation Center, Jeff Kositsky, told a Haight community virtual conference that a form of the villages may be part of the solution in the future.  

    “This is really just the beginning of the city’s efforts around opening up,” he says. “Whether it’s going to be tiny home villages or more safe sleeping villages, we’re going to have to safe spaces for people.”

    In Part Four of “A Place to Shelter,” we will look at some of the other alternative housing options and services the city is providing.