SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco is joining other U.S. cities in authorizing homeless tent encampments in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a move officials have long resisted but are now reluctantly embracing to safeguard homeless people.
About 80 tents are now neatly spaced out on a wide street near San Francisco City Hall as part of a “safe sleeping village" opened last week. The area between the city's central library and its Asian Art Museum is fenced off to outsiders, monitored around the clock and provides meals, showers, clean water and trash pickup.
In announcing the encampment, and a second one to open in the famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, San Francisco's mayor acknowledged that she didn't want to approve tents, but having unregulated tents mushroom on sidewalks was neither safe nor fair.
“So while in normal times I would say that we should focus on bringing people inside and not sanctioning tent encampments, we frankly do not have many other options right now,” she said in a tweet last week.
Nicholas Woodward, 37, is camping at the safe sleeping site, but he said he preferred sleeping in his tent before the city stepped in; he finds the fencing belittling and the rules too controlling. His friend, Nathan Rice, 32, said he’d much rather have a hotel room than a tent on a sidewalk, even if the city is providing clean water and food.
“I hear it on the news, hear it from people here that they’re going to be getting us hotel rooms,” he said. “That’s what we want, you know, to be safe inside.”
San Francisco has moved 1,300 homeless people into hotel rooms and RVs as part of a statewide program to shelter vulnerable people but the mayor has been criticized for moving too slowly. She has said she is not inclined to move all the city’s estimated 8,000 homeless into hotels, despite complaints from advocates who say overcrowded tents are a public health disaster.
San Francisco is just the latest city to authorize encampments as shelters across the country move to thin bed counts so homeless people, who are particularly susceptible to the virus due to poor health, have more room to keep apart.
Santa Rosa in Sonoma County welcomed people this week to its first managed encampment with roughly 70 blue tents. Portland, Oregon, has three homeless camps with city-provided sleeping bags and tents, and Maricopa County opened two parking lots to homeless campers in Phoenix.
San Francisco officials have historically frowned upon mini tent cities and routinely rounded up tents on city streets. But with an estimated 150,000 homeless people in California, most of them living out in the open, it's impossible to stamp out the highly visible tents along highways and on crowded urban sidewalks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that officials not disturb tent encampments during the coronavirus pandemic unless people are given individual hotel rooms, as homeless advocates want to see. Those advocates say providing a safe space where people can get meals, use a toilet and avoid harassing passers-by is a reasonable option given the times.
“The best, best option would be housing. The second-best option would be hotel rooms, but if you can’t do that and we’re going to have so many people outside then I think it makes sense ... to make those outside as safe as can be,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco.
But Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the federal government is providing an astonishing amount of money to battle the pandemic and she hopes cities and counties use it to put people into empty hotels, motels and other unused places.
“It's almost like we’re giving ourselves permission that it’s OK that people will sleep outside, and once we’ve given ourselves that permission, it’s very difficult to get the initiative together to do otherwise," she said.
Still, government-sanctioned tent camps may be here to stay, at least until a coronavirus vaccine is distributed.
At the urging of San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, the city's parks and real estate departments are compiling an inventory of open spaces that might be suitable for tent camps. She said sidewalk space is a coveted commodity for retailers, given coronavirus restrictions, and the city's strategy of adding more shelter beds doesn't make sense with a contagious virus.
”It is just a new world that we’re living in," she said, “and it’s going to have to be our new normal."