Supervisors Propose Expanding San Francisco's Safe Sleeping Villages

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Tents line a gravel sidewalk off Fulton Street near City Hall on May 5, 2020. On Wednesday, city staffers started drawing out socially distant spaces with chalk on the street for the tents to stay.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Two San Francisco supervisors have introduced legislation that would require the city to expand its system of safe sleeping sites for homeless people. The city first opened the sanctioned tent villages in May, as the pandemic forced shelters to limit the number of people they could take, and more people began sleeping on sidewalks in crowded encampments.

If Supervisors approve the proposal, it would mandate enough new safe sleeping sites to accommodate 500 people within nine months. Within 18 months, the city would need to have enough sites for anyone without access to a permanent supportive housing unit, shelter bed or hotel room. While the current number of unhoused people in San Francisco is unknown, the city's 2019 point-in-time count found about 8,000 homeless people.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced the proposal along with Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer.

Mandelman says the sleeping sites the city has already set up have been successful alternatives to shelters and sidewalks for unhoused people during the coronavirus pandemic.

“They are places where folks can set up tents. They're managed. They have port-a-potties and sometimes showers and services, regular cleaning, 24 hour 24/7 staff.”

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There are currently five sanctioned safe sleeping sites throughout the city, with a total capacity of 213 people. It’s unclear how many people are currently staying at those sites.

The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness recently surveyed 584 unhoused people in the city and found that 58% of the people surveyed would prefer a legal, free campsite over sleeping in one of the city’s existing shelters.

Keegan Medrano, policy and social media director for the Coalition, says the group doesn’t have an official position on the legislation yet, but supports expanding safe sleeping sites.

“If you gave me a choice of someone living in a vehicle, or on streets, someplace where they won't be policed, where they won’t be harassed, I would be supportive of that,” said Medrano.

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At the same time, they recognize that the sites are a harm reduction approach, and are less optimal than hotel rooms or RVs.

“I want permanently supportive housing. I want people to have a roof over their heads, but right now we don’t, as a city, have the will to do that completely,” said Medrano.

Mandelman said he would prefer if the city could find ways to afford more permanent housing for everyone.

“At the very, very least, we should be identifying safe places where people can at least spend the night rather than leaving it to them to figure out which sidewalk it's okay to be on. And rather than expecting neighbors to sort of accept having an encampment pop up outside their window," Mandelman said.

If the Supervisors adopt the proposal, the Department of Housing and Supportive Services would have 60 days to come up with a budget and plan for implementing it.