The Year in Review: San Francisco allowed sanctioned tent encampments on city land

When San Francisco’s COVID-19 health order was released in March 2020, requiring residents to shelter-in-place, it included one paragraph specifically exempting those experiencing homelessness. Immediately, that paragraph raised a question: How could someone without access to shelter protect themselves from the deadly virus? The Centers for Disease Control issued guidance that tents could provide an important barrier between neighbors to prevent the virus’s spread. Hundreds of tents were donated and distributed by community organizations.

Some housed neighbors started to complain about encampments in front of their homes and businesses. Service providers such as Homeless Youth Alliance in Haight-Ashbury wrote a proposal for an organized encampment that would provide access to bathrooms and showers. Mother Brown’s in the Bayview temporarily took over MLK Park to provide adequate space for tents to be spread 12 feet apart. Lawsuits were even threatened and filed, including one from UC Hastings College of the Law demanding that the tents be removed from sidewalks. Advocates organized protests, and the Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring the city to open 8,250 hotel rooms to folks who were living on the street and being emptied out of cramped shelters.

In May 2020, the Mayor and the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) finally responded by opening only 2,000 hotel rooms for those deemed most vulnerable to the virus. DEM also began fencing in the parking area between the San Francisco Main Library and the Asian Art Museum, where a large tent encampment had started to grow. Urban Alchemy took over the area’s management, assigning each tent one of 50 squares marked on the pavement; this was announced to the public as the city’s first “Safe Sleeping Village,” or SSV. Media interest in the campsite was intense, with TV crews sending up drones to take photos of the camp from above.

“It has been a breath of fresh air for me to be here. A respite. I have started school and finally have an opportunity to get on my feet because I’m not sleep deprived and I feel safe.”

Jasmine, 33, resident

In Haight-Ashbury, the Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA) was allowed to open a similar site at 730 Stanyan, where a McDonald’s recently closed. This SSV had space for 40 tents, and immediately HYA had a waitlist of local folks who wanted the spots. The attraction was clear: bathrooms, showers, access to necessary sanitation during a deadly pandemic, and no more daily visits from local police. The residents of the SSVs would also receive meals three times a day, supplied by the Salvation Army. The city encouraged SSV residents to stay sheltered inside the fenced walls, and wanted to provide meals and bathrooms to discourage folks from leaving to prevent the risk of the Covid virus spreading.

Campers for the most part welcomed the change. “I am grateful for this place,” said Mister E, 37, a resident of HYA’s camp. “It feels like a cocoon where I’m getting some healing and nurturing. As you allow us to be more humanized, we respond to the opportunity. I am a veteran, and when I’m out on the street I can’t sleep because every little sound and potential danger keeps me from relaxing. Being able to lay down and sleep and get rest is really healing for me.” 

“I love having the ability to use the bathrooms and the showers and having a safe setting so I can go take care of things outside of here like food stamps, legal issues, and other things that need to get taken care of. The staff helps us and reminds us of appointments and organizing all of the things I need to do. If I didn’t have help I wouldn’t be able to accomplish a lot of the things I need to get done. It makes the biggest difference. If I was still out on the street I wouldn’t have gotten any of that done.”

Lou, 35, resident

Safe Sleeping Villages were expanded to more than 200 campsites. A scaled-down model, a Safe Sleeping Site (SSS), was introduced. These usually have a bathroom and handwashing station but lack showers and food service, and are staffed with a single security guard instead of a service provider. A short-lived site was set up at a middle school in the Castro but quickly closed down when plans for school reopening began to be discussed. For the most part, the SSVs accomplished what they set out to do — containing the coronavirus — as no major outbreaks were reported in the 10 months of their existence.

Now comes the city’s reckoning with  the sites’ future after the COVID health crisis ends. Will they be allowed to remain? Will the city expand the SSV model, just as it announced plans for opening more Navigation Centers? Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has proposed in his “Place for All” legislation that the city study the question. Advocates have expressed concerns that most homeless individuals surveyed preferred the SIP hotels and housing. But should the city leave open some of the hundreds of campsites for the small number of people who prefer a tent to sleeping indoors — or as a transition until the city acquires more housing? The months and years ahead will answer these questions.