Following objections at a passionate community meeting, Supervisor Hillary Ronen said city-proposed “tiny homes” for the homeless near 16th Street BART Plaza may be off the table.
On Thursday at The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, Ronen and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing presented plans to the community to add 60 to 70 cabins to 1979 Mission St., where the Mission’s unhoused would live temporarily.
A tentative city timeline expected Mission Cabins to break ground by the fall if all went smoothly. It did not: After nearly an hour of residents criticizing the choice to place the cabins near Marshall Elementary School, it looks like it may not happen at all.
“You’re all using the school as an excuse this time,” said Ronen, who was clearly exasperated by the night’s meeting. If it wasn’t the school, “you find something else next to it, and point to that. It is something of a NIMBY thing … That being said, I am not going to support this project unless I can look you in the eye and say it’s safe.”
The plan could come to fruition only after more public input and assurances that benefits would outweigh the neighborhood’s concerns, Ronen said. She vowed Thursday to hold herself “personally accountable” for ensuring the site is properly maintained and “positive results” are delivered.
“If the project moves forward,” Ronen clarified at the meeting’s end. “I don’t know if it will, I will be honest with you.”
As proposed, the “Mission Cabins” would have 24-hour staffing and social services operated by a local community nonprofit, and be modeled after the city’s first Tiny Homes site at 33 Gough.
The site would last roughly a year-and-a-half to two years, before making way for 300 affordable-housing units slated for construction on the site in 2025.
The most prominent critiques centered around the site’s proximity to Marshall, located a two-minute walk away at 1575 15th St. Siting a homeless village so close, critics said, would mean students being exposed to possible drug use and other public safety issues. One woman brought a sign that read, “Great idea … but not next to Marshall Elementary School.”
“I’m not against homeless people or anything like that, but my son is my priority, and my son goes to Marshall,” said one mother in Spanish. She worried that the city wouldn’t hold unhoused people accountable if an incident occurred at the site. “I think it will be a good idea if we find another place for this.”
Another Spanish-speaking Marshall father described a situation where a person trespassed onto school grounds several months ago and it took the police two or three hours to respond. “I know these are humans,” he said. But he agreed with others: Tiny Homes should go elsewhere.
But the city said no other possible sites are as cost-effective, temporary, and ready-to-go. Because the city acquired 1979 Mission St. in 2021, operating Tiny Homes there is free.
Sam Dodge, the director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center, told the meeting attendees that multiple long-term unhoused residents in the Mission prefer to stay in the neighborhood, and HSOC’s extensive knowledge of the area means the cabins would be occupied quickly.
About 664 unhoused residents were tallied in District 9 during the 2022 Point-In-Time count. While homelessness dropped by 3.5 percent citywide, it rose by 55 percent in Latinx communities.
“We’re always looking for sites in the Mission,” Emily Cohen, the homeless department’s deputy director of communications and legal affairs, told Mission Local. “It should be an ‘and,’ not an ‘or.’”
Residents pushed back on that statement Thursday. Todd Eng, the president of Marshall’s Parent Teacher Association, said he and others recommended sites like a University of California, San Francisco property property near 15th and Harrison streets. Eng and his family have lived in the Mission for 15 years, and his daughter is a fourth-grader at Marshall. He thinks about the “risk” to his daughter, and to 240 other students at Marshall.
“It seems inequitable,” Eng said, repeating other neighbors’ complaints that social services are concentrated in the North Mission. At the location of Thursday’s meeting, St. John’s, a safe-injection site, is proposed. The Division Circle Navigation Center is also in North Mission.
Neighbors also questioned whether the city could actually maintain the site. “I’ve seen a lot of promises made and broken,” said Barbara, a site neighbor.
The latest promise is to operate 1979 Mission St. like 33 Gough, but even the supervisor isn’t sure that’s doable. “Tools we have in the toolbox today are not sufficient that we can make 1979 look like 33 Gough. I have to see action from the city,” Ronen said.
Still, others view Mission Cabins as a potential solution to growing homelessness. On Thursday, a man said Urban Alchemy was doing a “great job” at managing Gough. People Mission Local interviewed at 33 Gough said it was a positive addition that decreased encampments and improved the nearby situation.
Elizabeth Funk, the chief executive officer of Dignity Moves, whose organization built the housing at 33 Gough St. at $15,000 a pop, said “the immediate area” of 1979 Mission St. would benefit from tiny cabins.
Ronen also said if the plan did pass, Public Works, the police, and homeless outreach teams would visit 1979 Mission and have “extensive daily cleaning.”
Other residents are unconvinced. Families echoed this sentiment at an exclusive Mission Cabins meeting for the Marshall community last week, citing issues at the Division Navigation Center. Other neighborhood residents are discontented with the 1515 South Van Ness Ave. homeless sleeping site, and said it causes encampments and graffiti to pop up.
One woman, who does not have a student at Marshall, said she felt the city wasn’t taking the school seriously, especially about shielding students from visible drug use. “This doesn’t feel respectful, just because it’s free to you,” she said. The room erupted in applause.
The community opposition appeared to strike a nerve with the supervisor, who pointed out residents’ constant complaints about Mission homelessness conditions, but refused to get behind a proposal that could alleviate some of it.
“It’s not an insult to say we don’t have enough money. Do you know how much each unit costs?” Ronen said, appearing to address previous comments in her final speech. “It’s not an insult to you, but a love for human beings.”
“Every single argument you made, we have heard it every time,” Ronen said, referring to Thursday’s panelists. She understood residents’ fears and concerns, sharing some herself, she said. But “conditions are bad right now. I want to make them better. I can’t unless I have someplace for [homeless people] to go.”
The compassionate qualities of San Francisco are being lost, Ronen added. Her own daughter attends a school “like Marshall,” and walks by homeless people daily.
The opportunity is a teaching moment; you could teach “our children homeless people are to be feared, that they’re bad,” or that inequality drives situations like homelessness. If parents opt for the latter, “maybe they’ll think about that reality, and not be so scared.”