IT CAN’T BE easy to speak in public this year as a representative of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
Emily Cohen, often the face of HSH before the Board of Supervisors and other political leaders, had another rough session during the board’s May 10 meeting as she tried to explain away problems with the department’s management of its shelter bed assets.
When issues about shelter beds popped up during a three-hour, 22-minute, marathon hearing of the board’s Budget and Appropriations Committee on affordable and supportive housing, Cohen was called upon to speak.
The first time involved the simmering question of HSH’s genial acquiescence in the closure of the shelter location known as “Site F” near Pier 94 on property of the San Francisco Port.
The site has been open since 2020 and contains 114 trailers sheltering at least 108 “guests.” The site was initially established on an emergency basis during the pandemic and it was only supposed to continue through the end of the public health emergency. Mayor London Breed declared the emergency over on Feb. 28.
HSH initially asked for a 2-year extension but the port declined. HSH then negotiated a 10-month arrangement that would give it time to wind down and close the site in an orderly fashion.
That agreement was presented to the port commissioners as an “informational” item at a meeting on April 11 and port staff said it would be formally teed up for voting on April 25. However, as questions about the arrangement surfaced, the commission twice postponed consideration. The measure is currently anticipated to be heard on June 13.
Walton not reassured by assurances
Meanwhile, on May 9, a resolution offered by District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton and four co-sponsors to keep Site F operating was adopted unanimously by the supervisors, with at least one supervisor saying the program should not be closed but expanded.
Notwithstanding the resolution, HSH and the port reaffirmed their plans for closing the site.
Walton was not pleased.
A central issue for him is the fate of the people living at the site following closure.
HSH attempted to assure him that they had a “plan” that would guarantee an offer of either permanent housing or, at minimum, shelter for every person on the site.
Walton opened his comments by asking for the plan. Cohen said that an HSH memo that overviewed the wind down and provided the board a status report was a summary of the plan.
Walton said that the document did not say where the residents would go upon closure, nor what would happen to the trailers at the site.
Walton, known to be direct, said “either I don’t know what a plan is, or that’s not a plan.” Cohen explained that HSH was assessing all the residents for housing and at least 70 appeared to qualify and would be offered a housing option. She said those who do not qualify would be offered shelter with a priority for a Bayview location.
She said that while the department was not yet prepared to actually place the residents, HSH would make offers of housing and shelter in the future as the wind down progressed.
Walton was not persuaded. “I don’t share your optimism,” he said, “and neither do a lot of the residents on site.”
Without a specific plan and confirmed placements, Walton said, “you are literally going to be putting hundreds of people on the streets.”
“I don’t share your optimism, and neither do a lot of the residents on site.”Supervisor Shamann Walton, responding to HSH assurances of shelter for displaced Site F residents
When Cohen protested that the statement was not true, Walton cut her off.
“I’m not debating with you. I’m going to say what I want to say because [it] is true.” As far as he was concerned, assurance of future offers was not the same as placements, and as long as that was the case, an agreement to close the site was flatly unacceptable.
Moreover, Walton emphasized that the trailers at Site F provide individualized places to stay and include private bathrooms and showers. He said it was “unbelievable” that this option was in place. “To have this available is like a treasure.” Agreeing to close it was a “travesty.”
Walton also became to the first supervisor to speak out publicly in this context on the relationship of the port to the city.
He chided Cohen for referring to the port in the third person like it was some “alien entity.” In Walton’s view, the port is just like another city department and is “part of the city family.”
He said the “port wants to think they’re not part of the city and they’re some state entity,” but the “port plays a role in this.”
“They are just as responsible in making sure that people are not put out on the street as any other city department, as far as I’m concerned.”
While the port is run separately from the city, Mayor Breed appoints, and the Board of Supervisors confirms, the members of the commission.
District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen immediately followed Walton and while her focus was not Site F, the intensity of her concerns was equally apparent.
Ronen’s district includes the Mission and has been home to three of the city’s navigation centers.
Navigation centers are a San Francisco innovation, described by HSH as “low-threshold, high-service residential programs for adults experiencing homelessness.”
They are open and staffed 24/7. The low-threshold, high-service reference means residents can come with “pets, partners and possessions” and access an array of services, frequently including medical workers, social workers, case managers, meal services, laundry facilities, bathrooms, and kitchens.
Ronen spoke at length about her frustration. She said that she worked hard to help obtain community acceptance of navigation centers in her district only to find that once they were in place, no one would take responsibility for keeping the areas outside of the centers clean, safe and secure.
Her voice rising with emotion, Ronen pleaded with Cohen for HSH to take charge of these sites and make them places the community can continue to support.
She said the Mission has been one of the most “welcoming neighborhoods” in the city for facilities to help those experiencing homelessness, but had not been treated as good neighbors.
She then raised the 800-pound elephant in the room.
Beds but no bedrooms
The department’s brand-new strategic plan contemplates adding 1,075 new shelter beds city-wide over five years. On May 9, the supervisors went even further and unanimously called on the Mayor to fund 2,000 shelter beds in two years.
Ronen said that whether it is 1,075 beds or 2,000 beds, the issue is the same: “Where are you going to put them?”
She pointed out the difficulty the department has had in siting shelters throughout the city and asked Cohen how she thought they would find more beds “when the supervisor cannot look their constituents who are opposing the project in their face and say, I promise you this amenity will make your neighborhood cleaner and safer than it’s ever been before?”
Cohen tried to describe community partnerships and ambassador programs and other upbeat engagement efforts, but Ronen cut her off.
For two years, Ronen said, she had been trying to identify someone who would take charge of the issue but has gotten nowhere. “I have tried to get everybody to do their job. Everyone finger points at everyone else when there isn’t somebody in charge. Then it doesn’t work. It doesn’t happen.”
Ronen gave Cohen a message and repeated herself to make sure it got through. Ronen said that in her district, “we’re not doing new [homelessness] services until you actually listen to what the community is demanding.” Put more directly, “the Mission is not going to accept them anymore, until that changes.”
The shelter bed issue — long an intractable problem for the city — has taken on even greater prominence in light of the pandemic, a continuing loss of tourist dollars, an exodus of corporate employers, and a spate of negative publicity.
In addition, the city has been unable to set aside a federal court injunction that prevents the city from clearing tent encampments while there is a shortage of shelter beds. Testimony in the lawsuit showed that the shortfall was in excess of 4,000 beds.
HSH’s capacity to lead an initiative to expand shelter capacity has been repeatedly called into question by District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. In his view, “the failure to provide safe, clean, accessible public spaces across San Francisco’s neighborhoods is perhaps our local government’s gravest failure…”