The Mission’s only “safe sleep” site for the homeless is set to close by the end of the year, as part of the city’s plan to close sites that were set up as emergency measures to prevent contagion during the pandemic. The site is owned by the city and is slated to be used for an 168-unit affordable housing complex for families, with developers hoping to break ground in 2024.
The 41 residents currently on-site at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. will be dispersed in the coming months. A third of them are expected to qualify for permanent housing, but the rest will be placed into shelters, single-room occupancy hotels, and other forms of temporary housing — something many residents oppose.
“I’d rather be out here in a tent than be in one of those hotels,” said Erin Zorn, who has lived at the site since June, 2022, when she moved from a closing “safe sleep village” at the Civic Center.
“I’ve visited some people in some of those SROs and [the hotels] are disgusting. The rules are ridiculous. The bathrooms are atrocious.”
Zorn is so averse to the idea of moving that she recently tried to pitch a tent on Pennsylvania Avenue near 18th Street, in anticipation of the closure.
Her tent was set on fire. She is now back inside the site, dreading its closure.
“It’s hard enough being on the street and not having much,” she said. “To just throw it all away and try to start over again is kind of soul crushing.”
Site faced opposition from housed neighbors
The site, located on Cesar Chavez Street and South Van Ness Avenue, and operated by Dolores Street Community Services, is one of San Francisco’s two remaining “safe sleep” sites being wound down this year.
Since opening in July, 2020, the 1515 South Van Ness site has provided shelter, bathrooms, and two meals a day to a total of 227 residents. It has the capacity to hold 44 at a time.
The site is technically scheduled to close by the end of June, but the city’s homeless department is working to extend Dolores Street’s contract until December 31, to give them more time to assess residents for housing. It will be “gradually closing” over the coming months, and has stopped accepting new residents.
The arrangement has not been without controversy in the neighborhood, however. In January, a resident of Shotwell and 26th streets circulated a “Petition to Terminate the Unsafe Sleeping Area,” which complained of encampments and garbage in the blocks surrounding the site.
That has not been enough: Earlier this month, Supervisor Hilary Ronen said the poor conditions around the site were the reason she was withholding support from a tiny homes project for the homeless blocks away, at 16th and Mission streets. She said the street conditions around the site were an example of the Department of Homelessness “no longer keeping their promise to the Mission.”
“Not a good long-term strategy”
Neighbors’ concerns notwithstanding, Ronen’s office has said that safe sleep sites are not a cost-effective way to address the homeless crisis.
“We were told by [the department of homelessness] that the safe sleep sites are not really working out as an alternative to shelter,” said Santiago Lerma, a legislative aide for Ronen, adding that the sites are “ridiculously expensive,” due to the cost of renting bathrooms, showers, generators, and hiring security.
“They’re not a good long-term strategy,” Lerma said. “They’re not sustainable.”
It costs a little under $75,000 a year to finance a spot at a safe sleep site, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Congregate homeless shelters, where residents sleep in dorm-style rooms, often in cots, cost about $33,000 to $55,000 per resident per year.
A semi-congregate homeless shelter, like single-room occupancy hotels, costs around $38,000 per resident per year, according to Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“There’s no heat when it’s cold; there’s water coming in when it’s raining,” said Friedenbach. “For this amount of money, we could offer a lot higher quality of an experience.”
Supervisor Shamann Walton, who recently spearheaded an effort to keep open an RV site in his district that is slated to be shuttered by the end of the year, said he also does not see safe sleeping sites as a permanent solution.
The other remaining safe sleep site, which is scheduled to close at the end of June, is in his district, on Jennings Street and Van Dyke Avenue. Walton said will not oppose its closure either.
“At Jennings Street, folks are still living in tents on the street. We don’t want people on the street.”
For residents, the site was the best of bad options
Residents, however, seem to prefer the sites to shelters.
“I’ve been in a shelter before, and it’s not cool,” said a resident of the site, who has been there for a year. He said he was robbed constantly when he lived in shelters, which has not been an issue for him at 1515 South Van Ness. He would not accept placement in a shelter, he said.
Cassie Pennington, who has lived at 1515 South Van Ness for around a year, said she, too, would not take a place in a congregate shelter.
“At a shelter, my stuff isn’t safe and I’m not safe,” she explained. “There’s not a whole lotta storage for your stuff.”
Sky Halcomb, who has lived at South Van Ness since October, would not take a shelter placement, she said. She was previously raped in a shelter, she said, and did not want to take her chances.
As for promises to be placed into other housing, she is not hopeful.
“They make it so difficult,” she said. “I have a picture of my ID, but they want the actual ID. My wallet was stolen, and it’s $90 to get a new one. So I’m going to wait ‘til I can afford to order a new one. I mean, that’s the only option I have.”
Zorn, the woman whose tent was set ablaze when she tried to move out of the 1515 South Van Ness site, said the process of finding other housing would be taxing and that she may end up sleeping rough again.
“The thought of being in a hotel and having to jump through that hoop and go through all of that really scares me,” she said. “It may cause me to leave the city, or end up just throwing a tent back up on the street again.”
Uncertain future for residents
Come the end of the year, the homeless department plans to offer residents three housing options or assistance through the “homeward bound” program, which covers travel expenses to reunite with family elsewhere in the country.
According to Friedenbach, at the Coalition on Homelessness, the outcomes of individual residents are determined by the quality of their case managers. She said those at a safe sleeping site at 730 Stanyan St. in the Haight “did a really good job” matching residents with new housing.
“Residents did not end up back on the streets,” she said.
At Civic Center, on the other hand, “residents did not have folks advocating for them” she said. “It was a very chaotic situation, and only a third ended up in permanent housing.”
Concerningly for those at 1515 South Van Ness, Zorn had been transferred from the Civic Center site to South Van Ness, and felt that the case managers at Civic Center were more helpful.
“At Civic Center, they were actively bringing people in and trying to help you get housing,” Zorn said. She just met with a case manager at 1515 South Van Ness, she said, though she has been there for 11 months. “Here people are saying, ‘Do it yourself, don’t rely on them helping you.’”