Mission: We need to talk.
According to Supervisor Hillary Ronen and dozens of residents who attended last night’s Mission Community Meeting, street conditions have spun out of control as the pandemic arrived and poverty increased.
On Wednesday at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, city leaders and a community leader sat at a long table in front of an audience of at least 50 in person and more online, to talk about a Mission Plan that addresses illegal street vending, homelessness, and mental health services.
The biggest new idea came in the discussion on homelessness, when Ronen suggested creating temporary “cabin-like” homeless shelters at 1979 Mission St., the future site of the Marvel near the 16th Street BART station.
These “tiny homes” could open in six months if the project can get Board of Supervisors approval and funding. Ronen, who chairs the supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee, vowed to present the idea to her colleagues.
When Ronen became supervisor in 2017, the Mission had 200 homeless tents. At one point, with the help of a navigation center, that fell to 30, and was stable for a year, she said. But with the pandemic, encampments went back up to 200 as poverty rose and congregate shelters were deemed unsafe.
The priority is to house encampment dwellers, and the tiny homes suggestion for Mission Street was one of the newest. Ronen also asked that the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing reserve a fraction of 400 new permanent supportive housing units for Mission residents, arguing that resources often go to the Tenderloin.
Emily Cohen, the homelessness department’s deputy director of communications and legislative affairs, who was also at the meeting, wouldn’t commit to the idea without authorization, but said 53 shelter beds at Santa Maria and Santa Marta Church at 1040 South Van Ness Ave. will reopen in three to four weeks. The center has been closed during the pandemic.
Those 53 beds, Ronen said, aren’t good enough. “Those aren’t new.”
Sam Dodge, who oversees the Healthy Street Operations Center (HSOC), which links unhoused residents to care and sweeps tents and collects, or “bags and tags,” items, said the Tenderloin initiative has freed his team to focus on Mission hotspots like 25th and Capp streets and 19th and Shotwell streets.
On Wednesday, residents said HSOC tosses unhoused residents’ items in the trash, and offers them insufficient housing options. An advocacy report also suggested bag-and-tags are thrown away. Dodge denied this.
Street vending and illegal fencing
To combat illegal fencing operations, or sales of stolen items, that have somewhat taken over the BART Plazas and Mission Street, Ronen has introduced a new permitting process run by the Department of Public Works. Starting June 16, San Francisco Public Works, with a police officer standing by, will begin checking for permits. Vendors will also have to show proof of ownership. Otherwise, their items will be confiscated.
“When you take away the stolen goods and they can’t make a profit, they’re not going to continue,” Ronen said.
Mayor London Breed’s office requested Public Works and police officers start warning vendors ahead of the June date, Mission Police Station Capt. Gavin McEachern said. This week, members from community organization Calle 24 Latino Cultural District will approach vendors alongside a DPW staffer and police officer to educate vendors about the new permit.
Vendors who work with Calle 24 will receive a special badge and tablecloth that identifies them as permitted, said Calle 24 executive director Susana Rojas. This way, DPW can quickly check who is legitimate, and Latinx vendors can avoid unnecessary encounters with police officers. Last weekend, Calle 24 gave 25 vendors these tools and, since March, has educated at least 120 on the new process.
Questions about large-scale crime arose following a viral article about how a boba shop fronted for a fencing scheme (checks out, it was a Quickly). Though details are confidential, the District Attorney’s office confirmed fencing investigations are underway. One audience member suggested a place to start: Garfield Square, from 3 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. “I’ll stand outside watering my yard, and they’ll turn around and have a computer and put it under the shirt. I see it,” for years, he said.
Mental health services
Those experiencing mental health issues or who are using drugs may reject housing shelters, Ronen said. In 2021, 650 people died from overdoses. Cross-referenced records between the Emergency Medical Services and the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office reveal that more than half of those who overdosed had been in an EMS ambulance at least once, opening discussions about earlier intervention.
But getting those experiencing mental health crises to accept help can be difficult. Brenda Storey, the executive director of Mission Neighborhood Health Center, said she knows one woman who has been “decaying” on the street for 15 years and refuses assistance, and a man who set a car on fire.
This is why, in 2019, Ronen, Breed, and Supervisor Matt Haney launched Mental Health San Francisco to fully “overhaul” the city’s approach to mental health and homelessness.
On Wednesday, Ronen admitted it was “slow going” due to pandemic delays, and was not fully implemented. Mental Health SF and the fire department controls Street Wellness Response Teams to link individuals to care in lieu of police intervention. These teams started in January.
Only 3.8 percent of people the Street Wellness Response Team encountered in April qualified for the narrow standards of 5150, which allows for involuntary hold of a person experiencing a mental health crisis, said Simon Pang, the San Francisco Fire Department’s Assistant Deputy Chief of Community Paramedicine. “If they say no, there’s nothing I can do to force them off the street,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, the audience offered a mixed reaction, from skepticism to optimism, that the Mission will improve if everyone pitches in. John Mendoza, a founder of Calle 24, encouraged listeners to pitch in with a “hand up” attitude, instead of a hand down. “You guys need to create this program with us and make your neighborhood the neighborhood we want right,” Mendoza said.