Soon after Lydia Bransten, the executive director of the Gubbio Project, laid out the ground rules for Wednesday night’s meeting on already-approved tiny homes in the Mission, an attendee shouted out an angry response. Within seconds, he and Bransten were nose to nose.
That tense exchange at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church sums up the passionate opinions regarding the 60 cabins that will go up at 1979 Mission St., where roughly 68 homeless adults will temporarily live.
Though at first it appeared that dissenters equalled the supporters, as the night wore on, an increasing number of speakers who support the site stepped forward. Some parents from nearby Marshall Elementary School said they view the cabins as a teaching lesson for kids’ compassion; business neighbors voiced approval.
In February, Supervisor Hillary Ronen promised to reject the cabins until personally ensuring their safety, so residents were shocked to learn that she had pivoted and the city had quietly approved the project. It breaks ground in two weeks.
Ronen defended the decision on Wednesday, citing the Mission’s homelessness issue and overwhelmed resources. And, she offered new safety measures meant to address residents’ concerns about homeless “spillover” and worsened street conditions, specifically near neighboring Marshall Elementary School.
Outbursts, accusations of “lies” and booing occasionally interrupted Ronen and city department officials. The majority of the two-hour meeting was reserved for public comment, some aimed at Ronen’s decision to move the project along.
“I want you to put ‘Project Hillary’ on top of that, so we know who robbed us,” a resident named Jay said.
And a sizable portion of speakers still felt the Marshall students, some of whom were in tow Wednesday, would be endangered by the site. “It’s next to our kids,” one mom said, asking why it could not be done elsewhere.
The city, Ronen promised earlier, will hire a Director of Mission Streets Condition to observe 1979 Mission St. and the area surrounding Marshall. The director will call any appropriate city department in “real-time” if and when issues arise, Ronen promised. Additionally, the city will powerwash the streets and offer homeless residents shelter.
The director will work under the Healthy Streets Operation Center, a city entity that offers shelter to homeless individuals and clears encampments.
This, however, failed to assuage some. “We have people defecating on the street, selling illegal goods. Having somebody walking around or, you know, around the neighborhood isn’t going to fix all of the issues,” said one 15th Street resident.
“Do I get a commitment that it will be an encampment-free radius from the facility?” The same woman yelled at the city leaders after her time to speak was up. None responded.
Ronen explained earlier that the cabin project will have just “one” entrance and exit on Mission Street, not at Capp Street near Marshall. Architects promised a “buffer” between the community area and the site, including two fences and storage units in between. The tiny homes will be staffed and operated by a nonprofit contractor, and have round-the-clock camera surveillance.
“I want you all to know, for me, I feel comfortable now looking you all in the eye and saying that this is going to make the neighborhood better,” Ronen said.
Saba Moussavian, who lives near the project and was a health outreach worker at 33 Gough St., shared “how powerful it feels to see clients who I’ve worked with at 33 Gough.”
The cabins could be life-changing, formerly homeless people suggested. Thanks to resources, “I survived,” said Angelica Chavez in Spanish, who had stayed at 33 Gough. “On Friday, I’m moving into my first apartment,” she said, to roaring applause.
Members of the American Indian Cultural District, which is near the site, echoed how indigenous people were disproportionately affected by homelessness and could use the services.
The tiny homes will be guaranteed for Mission residents experiencing homelessness — a big sell to Ronen and many attendees, who see the site as a way to get people safely off the street. Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said 7,700 San Franciscans are homeless on any given night, and the last point-in-time count showed a 55 percent jump in the Latinx homeless population.
Indeed, just while waiting to enter Wednesday’s meeting on Julian Street, residents lined up by a homeless man sleeping soundly on a couch. Two tent encampments were pitched around the corner.
The cabins are modeled after those at 33 Gough St., a pilot homeless village viewed by the city as a success. Ronen and Julia Lowry, a principal architect with the Department of Public Works, noted how navigation centers at Embarcadero Center or Central Waterfront improved nearby homeless situations, and even won over previously critical residents.
Construction on the $5.7 million project will begin the first week of November and finish next spring. The per-cabin cost to operate will be $135 a day, which is equal to or less than other shelters, Cohen said.
In the end, the decision to move ahead had already been approved and Ronen and others could do little more than promise oversight.
“I very much understand the fear and the skepticism of leaders and parents at Marshall Elementary,” Ronen said at the meeting’s conclusion. “I will work nonstop to make sure that this tiny home community is a benefit to the individuals … and to the entire community.”