Community members, homeless advocates and city leaders weighed in Thursday at City Hall  on legislation that would give homeless campers longer notice of impending camp removals and guarantee them shelter.

The hearing took place during the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

While all agreed that tent encampments – some 80 of which have been mapped by the city’s newly established Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing and are subject to removal – are “unsustainable and undesirable,” residents and others are at odds on how to govern the process of clearing out the camps humanely while preventing campers from returning.

Countering a November ballot measure that would ban tents and give homeless campers just 24 hour warnings about camp removals, Supervisor Jane Kim introduced a measure in July that would provide the homeless with notice to pack up seven days before being forced to clear out of their camps.

Kim’s measure would also require the city to offer shelter services for a minimum of 90 days to those displaced. Her proposal is in an effort to transition encampment residents off the streets and into permanent housing.

However, after hearing from Sam Dodge, deputy director of the new department, Kim tabled consideration of the measure for the time being to give the department more time to assess best practices in addressing encampments.

Dodge said the department had its first success in dismantling an encampment near Islais Creek, placing some of its 50 residents into the city’s Navigation Center, and is in the middle of experimenting with different approaches such as providing campers with toilets and dumpsters.

Planning to focus on the Mission’s large scale homeless encampments next, Dodge told Kim that additional legislation dictating how to administer camp removals is not necessarily what is needed.  

“We don’t have the perfect prescription yet,” he said, adding that the department is taking its own steps towards fine tuning “a system.”

Still, the conversation shed light on the complexity of the issue of tent settlements and the varying needs of those forced to live in them and around them.

“Simply moving people out [of encampments] without giving them a place to go is not a solution – It doesn’t work,” said Mission supervisor David Campos, who spoke in support of guaranteeing housing for displaced campers. The Mission has been particularly affected by a swell in tent encampments that has left many of its housed residents frustrated.

“If you don’t give them a place to go they just go back to the same spot,” he said.

Campos blamed the neighborhood’s layout – a mix of residential and industrial buildings– and the recent development of other parts of city where “encampments could previously be” for making the Mission “ground zero” for tent settlements.

Some residents and business owner spoke to the urgency of dismantling encampments that currently occupy residential sidewalks and have cropped up next to local businesses.

“Please be realistic about the time frame,” said Gwen Kaplan, a representative of the Northeast Mission Business Association, calling the tent encampments that line 16th, Folsom, and Harrison streets “a very serious health and human safety issue.”

“A few weeks ago we counted 42 discarded needles on a walk around just one block – the tent encampment situation has to be ameliorated as quickly as possible,” she said.

Others criticized Kim’s measure for encouraging tents.

“The city should not be guaranteeing affordable housing just to anyone who sets up tents on our sidewalks,” said Patricia Aleman, director of the San Francisco Travel Association, adding that the measure would “incentivise more tents.”

But Kim fought back. “I don’t know where we expect to put them, if we expect them to disappear, vanish into thin air,” she countered, adding that the “only solution to homelessness is housing.”

Advocates for the homeless also stressed that the well-being of the homeless and the need for permanent and affordable housing must be at the center of any discussion surrounding the removal of encampments.

“For them, [the experience] is a thousand times worse than what myself, as a neighbor in the Mission, goes through in witnessing homeless people,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Friedenbach stressed that thoughtful approaches to helping camp residents exit homelessness are a first step, and that permanently providing them with housing takes time.

“The reality is that when we are trying to resolve encampments we can’t move people quickly,” she said.

Social worker Colleen Rebecca said that part of the struggle in addressing encampments is fighting against the “myths and misinformation” surrounding homelessness.
“Camps are made of people,” she said. “Ignorance, intolerance and nasty public discourse like this hurts us just as much as the current state [of] not having enough resources to help the vast number of people who are suffering on our streets.”