SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — At the height of the 1960s countercultural movement, young hippies and vagabonds were welcomed to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood with open arms.
More than 50 years later, some residents of the former hippie enclave no longer welcome transients, so much so that they filed a federal lawsuit to stop the city from establishing a sanctioned homeless camp on a vacant lot at 730 Stanyan Street.
Concerned Citizens of the Haight, a recently formed neighborhood group, sued the city Tuesday night, seeking a court order to block a “safe sleeping site” on an unused parcel where a McDonalds restaurant once stood. The city purchased the property in 2018 for $15.5 million with plans to build affordable housing there.
The neighborhood group claims the former McDonalds was once a “mecca for transients and drug dealers” that resulted in frequent loitering, drug use, blight and violent crime that “jeopardized the safety and well-being of Haight Street’s residents and merchants for many years.”
San Francisco’s plan to put a sanctioned homeless camp close to the area’s largest grocery store, a high school, child care centers and senior housing threatens to “disrupt the status quo” and subject residents to “unsafe living conditions,” the group says.
Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents Haight Ashbury, said he would prefer homeless people be placed in hotels during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, because Mayor London Breed has not moved quickly on the Board of Supervisors’ directive to place unsheltered people in hotel rooms, he said a safe sleeping site is the best alternative.
“It’s an attempt to move people from an unsafe and unsupervised environment into a supervised and safe one,” Preston said in a phone interview.
The site will accommodate about 43 tents with adequate distance between them to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The site will be staffed 24/7, and campers will have access to bathrooms, handwashing stations and public health resources such as testing for the novel coronavirus.
Despite opposition by a vocal group of neighbors, Preston said he believes most residents and business owners in Haigh Ashbury support the safe sleeping site. He thinks much of the opposition is based on “misinformation,” and he said some of the most ardent critics are those who oppose providing any homeless services at all.
“They need to understand this is an emergency response to a global pandemic and a crisis of people living on the streets,” Preston said. “I challenge the critics to offer some solutions here.”
San Francisco has seen a recent spike in deaths among homeless people. Forty-eight homeless people died between March 30 and May 24, according to the San Francisco Public Health Department. That’s an average of six deaths per week and a 242% increase compared to 14 homeless people that died during the same period last year.
Preston commended the city for taking steps to curb the spread of Covid-19 with shelter-in-place orders and face-mask mandates, but he said the city’s response to homelessness during this crisis has been “a complete failure.”
Another group of Haight Ashbury neighbors also criticized the supervisor this month after Preston and his supporters donated 1,000 tents to homeless people. The group, Establishing Safe Healthy Haight, said Preston failed to consider where the tents would be placed or if they would comply with public health orders. As a result, neighbors reported seeing “an influx of dense tent encampments on sidewalks.”
“This action was reckless and created a public health and safety crisis on our streets,” Establishing Safe Healthy Haight wrote in a Medium blog post on May 22.
Preston responded that he believes sleeping in tents is safer than sleeping on the streets with no shelter at all. He said the city’s failure to provide more hotel rooms made the need for tents more urgent.
In April, the board approved an emergency ordinance directing the city to secure 8,250 hotel rooms for homeless people following a Covid-19 outbreak at a makeshift indoor homeless camp at Moscone West convention center. As of Wednesday, the city had acquired 3,178 hotel rooms and recreational vehicles, with only 1,449 rooms and RVs occupied.
Preston said the city expects to have the safe sleeping site at 730 Stanyan Street ready to be occupied by Friday. It would be the city’s second sanctioned temporary homeless camp during the pandemic following one established on Fulton Street near City Hall in mid-May. That site accommodates roughly 50 tents.
Concerned Citizens of the Haight say the camp planned for Stanyan Street will endanger residents who are elderly and suffer from health conditions because they risk exposure to the virus when they venture outside near the camp for essential trips. They complain it will also lead to a resurgence of loitering, drug use and crime in the area.
The group claims the city’s move to establish a sanctioned camp violates their due process rights, city zoning ordinances and other laws. They say it will also create a public nuisance in violation of state law.
They are represented by Harmeet Dhillon of San Francisco.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Coté said the city stands by its decision to establish a safe camping site during the pandemic.
"We will review the lawsuit, and we expect to defend the City’s sensible decision to move forward with the safe sleeping site," Coté said.
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