A Visit to Pier 80, S.F.'s Temporary Homeless Shelter in Remote Corner of City

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Former Oracle Racing base at San Francisco's Pier 80 has been turned into what the city is describing as a temporary homeless shelter. (Google Streetview)

The cab driver dropped me off at Pier 80 at what looked like the logical spot, an automated gate at the eastern end of Cesar Chavez Street where a banner proclaimed in square blue letters, "Pier 80."

But from the other side of the gate, a man yelled that this wasn't the homeless shelter I was looking for. He'd heard of it, he said, but had no idea where it was.

I had to backtrack to Illinois Street to find the shelter, a cavernous warehouse once occupied by billionaire Larry Ellison's America's Cup yacht-racing team that now serves as a refuge for some of the city's most destitute residents.

Located in a desolate part of the city's southeast waterfront, the facility is surrounded by chainlink fences topped by razor wire and acres of empty asphalt crisscrossed by defunct railroad tracks. Just outside the fence, a man lies behind some bushes, apparently searching for a vein.

Initially designated by the city as a temporary shelter from expected El Niño rains, Pier 80 has been pressed into service as a destination for some of those recently forced to disband tent camps in the South of Market and Mission districts. The center has grown from 100 to 120 to 150 and now to 180 "beds" -- foam mats laid in rows on the floor of a giant tent inside the warehouse.


The building also houses a room filled with plastic tables and chairs arrayed in front of a TV. The facility also features showers, portable toilets and dog crates where shelter residents can keep their pets. There's also a gated area where people's belongings sit in garbage bags.

Tents on Bryant Street set up after encampments were cleared from nearby Division Street.
Tents on Bryant Street set up after encampments were cleared from nearby Division Street. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

When I visited Thursday afternoon, the space was eerily empty. The sound of a basketball bouncing and a woman's inarticulate, staccato shouting echoed off the structure's metal walls. None of the handful of people I encountered at the shelter wanted to talk.

Mayor Lee's homeless czar, Sam Dodge, said that since there's no curfew or checkout at the shelter, the facility clears out every day and fills up again at night. Not that every spot in the shelter is taken: Dodge said that about 30 beds have been vacant each night.

"People are making other choices," Dodge said. "You know, people have civil rights, and we make the opportunities available, and we try to work with people to get in there."

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the city's Coalition on Homelessness, said there are other reasons many beds are going unclaimed at Pier 80. She says the problem is that in order to get a space at Pier 80, those living on the street must first be referred by the city's homeless outreach team or wait all day at an intake center.

Added to this, she said, is media coverage of the temporary shelter that has pointed out its stark appearance and location in an isolated part of the city, far from services that many of the homeless need during the day.

"Most of the people we've talked to have said they haven't been offered anything. A lot of them are saying they'd like to go somewhere but they have nowhere to go," Friedenbach said. "Since they're limiting access in this way that you have to be referred by an outreach worker, you have to be lucky."

Meantime, both city officials and homeless advocates say that many of those forced to vacate blocks along and near Division Street over the past week or so have simply relocated to nearby areas.