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What a Difference a Lawsuit Makes

By Chris Block, CHI Director

Things are hell of a lot better in the Tenderloin today than they were in April when the pandemic forced many residents out of shelters and onto the streets. While it is tempting to treat the TL as an isolated case (as we so often do as a City) there are important lessons from the work done there that should inform future efforts to reduce homelessness all across San Francisco.  Building on that success is especially important as Mayor Breed executes her newly-released plan to create 1,500 new units of supportive housing over the next 18 months.  If we can replicate the success that the Tenderloin has seen moving people indoors, we can achieve the City-wide impact that all San Franciscans want to see.

In early May, UC Hasting Law School and five residents of the Tenderloin filed a lawsuit “to compel the City to clear sidewalks to allow for unfettered safe passage for neighborhood residents and workers … and to obligate the City to provide healthy and safe solutions for unhoused people who now use sidewalk encampments as their residence to the detriment of all in the Tenderloin, both housed and unhoused.” (UC Hastings College of Law Press Release, May 4, 2020).  According to the complaint, there were 173 tents in the neighborhood on March 13––just prior to the Shelter-in-Place order––and 391 on May 1.  The lawsuit further alleges that this increase led to significant negative street impacts making it difficult for residents to conduct essential services like buying medicine and groceries, businesses to reopen and operate safely, and homeless residents to practice social distancing.

The City reached a settlement whereby they agreed to reduce the number of tents on the sidewalks by offering alternatives such as shelter-in-place hotel rooms, safe sleeping villages outside of the neighborhood, and some limited off-street alternatives like specified parking lots in the Tenderloin. The results, as reported by Phil Matier in the Chronicle on July 1, are that 388 people have been moved off the streets and into hotels or safe sleeping sites and the number of number of tents has been reduced from 443 to 172.  The City has since reported continued progress; to date approximately 500 people have been moved into hotels and 86 people into safe sleeping sites and villages.

What are the lessons learned from this most recent effort? How can we apply these lessons to our overall work in getting many more people inside while significantly improving street conditions?  Here are some takeaways that we think should be incorporated into future City efforts:

  1. People who are living on the streets want to get inside. The Tenderloin effort once again disproves the tired old trope that there are significant numbers of people experiencing homelessness who are resistant to housing.
  2. The City works best in partnership with the Community. It was critical that the City created a forum where TL residents and businesses could provide input into the plan, and it was imperative to enlist the support of non-profit service providers who have deep relationships with Tenderloin residents.
  3. Transparency (in this instance publishing the data about the increase in street tents) can create a framework for problem solving. Once you acknowledge the scale of the problem, you can design the solutions to address it.
  4. External pressure, for example a lawsuit, can generate the urgency and momentum that is essential for making improvements in complex problems like homelessness.

The Chronic Homeless Initiative at Tipping Point is committed to using these lessons as we work together as a city to significantly address homelessness in San Francisco, specifically: 

  1. We will work in partnership with Community. No organization or individual can do this work alone. We will engage committed stakeholders from all sectors to ensure that there is a collective response to homelessness.
  2. We will be transparent. We will hold up a mirror to the homelessness response system so that everyone in the City can see and understand how we are doing against our goals. Our transparency will be reflected in the publication of a monthly Snapshot. We have published three Snapshots already this year. The Snapshot shows San Francisco’s commitment to creating more housing opportunities for our homeless neighbors and our progress toward creating and moving people into these units. Going forward, the Snapshot will incorporate and track the City’s most recent commitment to creating an additional 1500 units of permanent supportive housing.
  3. We will act with the urgency that this issue demands. Now is the time to ensure that no one who has been housed or sheltered as a result of COVID-19 ever has to live on our streets again.

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