A common-sense & cost-effective model 

If you are one of the thousands of San Francisco residents who have called in to 311 or SFPD to complain about the human waste, discarded needles, garbage, crime, or unsightliness associated with tent encampments, then we have good news for you. The Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge is currently piloting a common-sense and humane strategy to decrease the major pain points associated with the City’s approximately 80-100 identified tent encampments. 

The underlying theory to this approach is that by increasing our accountability to unhoused residents living on the street through the provision of necessary services, we can also increase the accountability of encampment residents to their neighbors, local businesses, SFPD, and the DPW.

If implemented over the next year in partnership with the City and community organizations, this approach would cost only a fraction of the 20.6 million-dollar price tag that is currently spent on policing encampments and could significantly reduce the millions of dollars spent by DPW each year for encampment clean-up.  What’s more, we can do this in a way that supports the health, safety, and dignity of unhoused residents while working to prevent the proliferation of new encampments. 

Earlier this year we learned from the Budget and Legislative Analyst Report, "Homelessness and the Cost of Quality of Life Laws”, that using SFPD officers and citations as a tool to deter homelessness was too expensive and that unsheltered homelessness actually increased when ticketing increased.  Although SFPD officers are not the best resource for the job when it comes to improving the condition of homeless encampments for both unhoused and housed residents, police officers can and should play an important part of the solution. That’s why SFHC Founder Amy Farah Weiss was so thrilled to receive an e-mail from SFPD Officer Yvonne Moilenan in mid-September with the subject heading "Toilet for homeless”.  Officer Moilenan told AFW that she worked with DPW at the encampment on 7th St near the CalTrain tracks and that "one of the homeless gentleman there asked for a portable toilet". 

That same night that AFW received Officer Moilanen's e-mail, she rode her bike over to 7th street and started up a conversation with Richie, one of the unhoused residents. Richie recognized her from her work on Division street, and his eyes lit up when she told him about the idea of a cooperatively self-managed portapotty project. AFW came back a couple days later on Saturday afternoon per Richie’s invitation and met with more residents of “ Box City”, who were excited to work together on a project to support their needs and to build bridges to the neighboring community. Box City gets its name because all of the residents constructed their own box sleep structures – some more elaborate than others –out of found materials and donated items. “No tents allowed” at Box City; and everyone must participate in keeping the area as clean and respectful as possible. Residents also take pride that they are “eyes on the streets” to prevent car break-ins and have built relationships with the security guards of the nearby condos.

In addition to providing a portapotty to Box City, which has already kept over hundreds of pounds of feces off of the neighboring streets, the residents of Box City have been working with AFW to develop and honor “Good Neighbor” agreements to address the issues of trash, safety, hygiene, and livability for neighbors, local businesses, drivers, and cyclists.  Box City is much cleaner and organized than before the pilot started, but we still have a lot of work to do on an almost non-existent budget to address a host of issues, including the need to connect residents to job opportunities that benefit the community and to further support systems and structures for off-grid living.

If the City, as well as community collaborators, are interested in learning from this pilot project to roll out a larger program, we could invest in community liaison workers that are responsible for 1-3 "transitional sleep and service hubs", build aesthetically pleasing sleep structures with an organized trash and human waste system, provide essential services to increase livability, work to connect each resident to a transition plan, and work with residents to move them to different locations if their current location is deemed unsuitable. As evidenced by a recent mapping project of San Francisco, there are 1,500 underutilized City-Owned Remnant Parcels of land that can be explored as better sites.

We will need to develop a protocol with community input for how to respond when residents are unable or unwilling to comply with Good Neighbor agreements, but first we have to give everyone the opportunity to comply. In addition to developing a city-wide immersion strategy that will address the needs of the 80-100 encampments simultaneously with adequate resources, we will need to clearly identify where new tents will or will not be tolerated throughout the City. And all of this can be done for less than half of the $20.6 million that is currently being spent to police encampments without any lasting benefits to unhoused residents and their neighboring community.

It’s a plan fitting for a city named after Francis of Assisi, who challenged us to "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."