StoreFrontLab's “small space for big ideas” on Shotwell street filled up with people interested in learning about interim solutions to homelessness. Photo by Anna M. Clausen

Shelters, navigation centers and even porta-potties were up for discussion Tuesday at StoreFrontLab’s Between Street and Home, the first event in the panel series Towards a Compassionate City: A Conversation about homeless Encampments.

This first panel focused on a discussion about interim solutions to homelessness in San Francisco with three experts weighing in. The next two panels will take place at  337 Shotwell St. on October 11 and 18.

Chris Herring, a PhD Candidate at the UC Berkeley Sociology Department, started the night off by going through a brief history of homeless shelters, from humanitarian shelters in the 70s, the shelter “explosion” and institutionalization in the 80s and 90s to the medicalization of homelessness in the early 00s.

Afterwards, he discussed his dissertation research, which included living in encampments and shelters alongside those experiencing homelessness.

“The proximity of space would lead to a lot of fights, a lot of tussles were people would get out,” Herring said of his shelter experience, using a projector to show a picture of a tiny space filled with bunkbeds. He clicked to the next picture, showing people that didn’t get a bed but had to sit on chairs in the shelters instead.

“Almost every night people would fall asleep and fall on the floor,” he continued. “Then the staff would yell at them for sleeping on the floor.”

People are often thrown out on the street for such offenses according to Herring who also noted that if people went out for a cigarette during the night they often wouldn’t be allowed back in.

“Some people felt comfortable because it’s something that they are used to,” he said of the shelters. “Others would never go in there because it reminded them of the prisons and was traumatic”

However, as he said, for most shelter is a question of life and death and when faced with full shelters many will hop on one of the buses that drives all night rather than sleep in the streets.

Herring also spoke of San Francisco’s 311 90-day shelter program that was designed to be a more long-term interim measure and assigns people to beds for 90 days. Some 859 people were on the program’s waiting list that very morning before the talk, he said adding that in fact, for the three months he spent working with a social worker while doing his dissertation research no one was offered a 90-day bed.

Next up was Sam Dodge who started off by stating that homelessness is totally solvable.

“We are often talking about dollars and cents, which is ridiculous because we are talking about people,” he said.

The next speaker, Sam Dodge, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that before moving here, he had worked on New York City’s Safe Havens transitional housing solution.  That project became the inspiration for SF’s first Navigation Center on 1950 Mission Street in a building which up until March 2015 had been vacant for 10 years.

“We are not trying to box you in,” Dodge said of the Center and its inhabitants. “What makes it real to you is that we don’t have curfews, we don’t have lines.”

The curfews that get people locked out in traditional shelters are nonexistent in the centers. Dodge said the organizers wanted those using the services to be able to come and go as they pleased and in that way signal that they are grown-ups who are responsible for changing their own lives.

The center, Dodge said, is also special because it is open to many who haven’t found a place in the system before such as couples without children and people with pets.

The Center’s mission is now focused on those who suffer from recurring bouts of homelessness. To date, 700 people have come into The Navigation Center and six new centers are in the works.

“In my own world in the mayor’s office there was a lot of skepticism,” Dodge said, imitating the voices of doubt that claimed that people in tents wouldn’t want to go into housing. “We were able to show them and its very popular these days, almost too popular.”

Next up was Amy Farah Weiss, one of the founders of the St. Francis Homelessness Challenge,
who wasted no time in blasting Supervisor Mark Farrell and his November ballot measure, proposition Q, that would allow police to remove tents and encampments with 24-hour notice.

She asked those present to call out the so-called pain points of those complaining about homelessness and got answers such as drugs, blocking the sidewalk and urine.

“What do you think the pain points are for people living on the street?” Weiss then asked and the crowd answered: assault, access to bathrooms, access to water, shame. Someone also called out loneliness but Weiss said that this may not be a big issue because of encampment communities.

She said however, that Farrell believed the homeless population to be dangerous. “That’s when you start to feel lonely in society,” she said. “When you are deemed “the other”.”

Weiss is certain that the pains of both the homeless and those complaining about them can be addressed at “a fraction of the cost of policing.” She said that the cost of SFPD responding to calls about homelessness last year, (not counting crime and emergency calls according to Herring), was over $20 million.

Weiss compared the ineffectiveness of abstinence only education for teenagers to the equally ineffective strategy of handing out citations to the homeless.

“The same kind of things apply for homelessness and how we police it on the street,” she said. “When the citations increased the amount of homelessness on the streets increased by 16 percent.”

Weiss’ organization recently installed a portable toilet in encampment called Box City near the Caltrain tracks at Seventh and Hubbell.

“I Googled something I thought I’d never do: How much does a bowel movement weigh?” she said, pausing to let the crowd laugh. “140 pounds, for that encampment in a week.”

As positive as it sounds to keep those pounds of poop of the streets, not everyone is happy with Weiss’ efforts.

When the floor was opened for questions, a young man noted that the panel, and probably all of those present, mostly agreed on the issues at hand. “Is there someone that is smart and knowledgeable about this topic that disagrees?” he asked.

The audience laughed. The panel members, not so much.

Weiss answered that people working on homelessness had different areas of focus and that she was one of the few people advocating to address both what life is like on the streets as well as the pain points for neighbors. She also noted that those who are not happy with her toilet initiative worry about the proliferation of encampments.

Still, she stays firm in her vision. “I am not willing to negotiate on toilets for people who need them.”

Dodge said he thought that the panel members were being very well behaved. “We have long conversations in private that are heated,” he said. “What goes first, how do you do this or that, there is a lot of disagreement.”

One of the final questions of the night was about more self-governance in encampments. Weiss directed it over to a young man, RJ, who had been sitting with the panel members. He had gotten a very small introduction during Weiss’ talk, but mostly remained silent, even nodding off slightly during Herring’s slideshow.

RJ lives in Box City and in a calm, quiet manner he said that yes; its inhabitants would be willing and able to take on more responsibilities, saying they had a good system to work things out.

“If there is a conflict we talk about it, we settle it right there. We don’t want to bring it out into the community.”

Follow Us

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *