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San Francisco homelessness department, supervisors at odds over Pier 94 shelter closure

S.F. homelessness adviser has first-hand experience of life on the street
SF homelessness adviser has first-hand experience with life on the street 03:15

SAN FRANCISCO -- When budget season comes around in San Francisco, city departments tend to step gingerly around the Board of Supervisors because the board holds the purse strings and can tighten them if it wants to send a message.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) has its budget hearings scheduled for June 15 and 22 and one might think that it would be particularly sensitive to collisions with the board.

Apparently, that is not the case. A Tuesday report indicates that HSH is actively working to close the shelter location known as "Site F" even though three weeks ago the board unanimously adopted a resolution urging the city to keep the site open.

The resolution, though not legally binding on HSH, was a strong statement of the board's views that the site should not be closed. The resolution said closure would be a "travesty."

Site F is on port lands near Pier 94, and contains 114 trailers that in April sheltered as many as 118 people experiencing homelessness. The site was initially established during the pandemic and it was to continue through the end of the public health emergency. Mayor London Breed declared the emergency over on Feb. 28.

Trailers located at "Site F" on property of the San Francisco Port Commission in San Francisco, Calif. on Feb 22, 2023. Site F provides shelter for more than 100 people experiencing homelessness.  CBS

HSH initially asked the port for a two-year extension but the port declined. HSH then negotiated a 10-month arrangement that it said would allow time to wind the site down and close it in an orderly fashion.

The agreement was presented to the Port Commission for "informational" purposes at a meeting on April 11. Port staff advised the commissioners that they would bring the matter back for a formal vote on April 25.

After the hearing, questions about the wisdom of the agreement surfaced.

The city's severe shortage of shelter has been taken enhanced importance since a federal judge in December 2022 barred the city from clearing tent encampments while there are not enough shelter beds to cover all people sleeping on San Francisco's streets. Testimony in the case showed the city's bed shortfall exceeds 4,000.

Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes the Bayview District where many of the residents of Site F came from, introduced a resolution that opposed closing the site.

Walton emphasized that the trailers at Site F provide individualized places to stay and included private bathrooms and showers. He said it was "unbelievable" that this option was in place.

"To have this available is like a treasure," he said.

In commenting on Walton's resolution, District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar said the site shouldn't be closed; it should be expanded to serve more people.

She pointed out that she has been working for two years unsuccessfully to find a place in the city that can provide safe parking for people living in their vehicles with electric, water and sanitary services. She said it was "inconceivable" that the city would let this site -- which already has those services in place -- close.

On May 9, the full board adopted Walton's resolution.

Meanwhile, the port commission postponed its consideration of the wind-down and closure arrangement from April 25 to May 13 and then again until June 13.

But notwithstanding the supervisors' expressed opposition and the fact that the commission has not approved the wind-down agreement, HSH has been actively working to close the site.

An HSH report dated Tuesday shows that HSH ceased intake at the site in April (although even under the proposed agreement, intake can continue until Oct. 2) and, as a result, 17 of the trailers now stand vacant.

Walton has repeatedly told HSH that he was concerned about what would happen to the people who live at the site when it is closed. Many of the residents previously lived on the street in the Bayview and he feared that is where they would end up again.
HSH assured him that no person would be asked to leave the site without an offer of either housing or shelter, and that most people would receive housing.

At a hearing on May 10, Walton stated that he had no confidence in HSH's assurance.

The recent report shows that of the nine people who exited the site in May, only three left for housing. Of the remaining six, one is reported in a category that includes shelter; the last five are described as "self-exits."

Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for HSH, said, "The wind-down of this program, like any shelter program, takes time and the only way to do this in a client-centered and trauma-informed way is to do it gradually and work closely with guests on their housing and shelter options. This takes time."

She went on to reiterate prior assurances that "The vast majority of guests will be eligible for permanent supportive housing and will be offered three placement options. If a guest is not eligible for permanent housing they will be offered shelter in the Bayview neighborhood (or elsewhere if they prefer)."

She did not answer questions about the lack of placements of the majority of individuals who left in May.

The dust-up is just the latest in a series of events this spring where HSH has taken its own course without regard to the views of the board.

On March 22, HSH presented testimony about its decision to ignore the board's directive for it to prepare a plan to end unsheltered homelessness in the city within three years. (HSH said that even if it had $1.45 billion additional dollars and three years to work with, it could not be done.)

Then, on April 14, HSH proposed a strategic plan to deal with unsheltered homelessness. But that plan proposed to cut homelessness in half over five years, even though the board had unanimously adopted a policy in June 2022 that said the city will offer every unsheltered person (not every other person) "a safe place to sleep."

HSH's approach on these issues led Supervisor Rafael Mandelman to publicly express doubt that HSH was the right department to be in charge of expanding the city's shelter bed assets.

Another problem is that HSH's strategic plan will cost $607 million over five years in addition to continuing all currently budgeted amounts. When it released the report, HSH said it did not know where the additional money would come from.
HSH's budget hearings in June promise to be interesting.  

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