As tents line Tenderloin sidewalks, city pays $6,000/week to guard empty lot

As tents line Tenderloin sidewalks, city pays $6,000/week to guard empty lot
180 Jones St. is guarded around the clock by a city contractor who is paid $35.41 per hour. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline
By Carrie Sisto - Published on May 19, 2020.

The city of San Francisco is paying a private security contractor nearly $6,000 per week to guard an empty Tenderloin parking lot — as ad-hoc tent villages of homeless people continue to crowd the adjacent sidewalks.

The city-owned lot at 180 Jones St. (at Turk), which is under the jurisdiction of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), will ultimately be the site of 70-80 permanently affordable housing units. 

But with construction still two years away, the lot was slated to become a 24-hour drug sobering center this spring. An initial plan called for 15 tents to be erected on the site, with nurses and peer counselors to assist people in the throes of meth-induced psychosis.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is now no timeline for that project, according to Max Barnes, spokesperson for the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

“The proposed drug sobering center has ongoing support as an evidence-based model to help people who use drugs," Barnes said via email. "But the use of 180 Jones for that purpose has been put on hold as the [EOC] evaluates a number of potential publicly owned sites for its ongoing COVID-19 response."

In the meantime, the empty lot is gated off and guarded — even as the surrounding sidewalk is crowded with tents. A security firm is receiving $35.41/hour to guard the empty lot: 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The lot at 180 Jones is fenced off while tents crowd neighboring sidewalks. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proliferation of sidewalk tents in the Tenderloin has caused an uproar. Residents, especially the elderly and disabled, say the sidewalks are often too choked with tents to use at all — much less at a six-foot social distance.

The tents' residents, who have little access to sanitation, also cannot safely distance themselves from pedestrians or each other.

Last month, a coalition of Tenderloin residents and businesses, led by UC Hastings, sued the city over the sidewalk conditions.

Tents blocking doorways are "literally keeping owners from opening their essential businesses," Tenderloin Merchants Association president Aref Egaali told Hoodline earlier this month. "The entire sidewalk is [already] unsafe to walk upon, and it is impossible to practice social distancing."

Local advocates say that the 180 Jones lot could easily be transformed into a city-operated safe sleeping site, with appropriate spacing for tents, bathrooms and social services.

Last week, the Tenderloin got its first of these sites, with room for 50 spaced-out tents on a fenced-off section of Fulton Street near Civic Center. But it's already at capacity, and the neighborhood's sidewalks remain crowded with people who could not secure a spot. 

Socially distanced tents at the Tenderloin's new safe sleeping site on Fulton Street. | Image: Corey Browning/Courtesy of SF Examiner

In fact, the 180 Jones St. lot could have been a safe sleeping site already, long before the pandemic began. 

Last fall, the MOHCD solicited proposals for a temporary use of the lot while the affordable housing project underwent development.

It received just one offer, from the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge (SFHC), which called for turning the lot into a safe, organized tiny-home village with room for 20 resident-stewards.

SFHC's founder and director, Amy Farah Weiss, had a plan in place to pay for the project, using $150,000 in funds from an anonymous early employee at Facebook. 

But in December, the city put Weiss' proposal on hold, ultimately dropping it in favor of the drug sobering center. Now, Weiss says, the lot is still empty, even as the thousands of dollars spent to keep it that way could have been redirected to helping the unhoused people that surround it. 

"If a contracting firm has received over $35/hour, 24/7, since the shelter-in-place order was instated in mid-March, the City could have used those same funds to purchase a new shower trailer — and had $10,000 left over for operating costs and other supplies,” Weiss said.

She knows, because SFHC purchased a shower trailer itself in April. It initially resided in Bayview's MLK Park, where it was used at an ad-hoc safe sleeping site run by nonprofit Mother Brown's Dining Room. But the city shut that site down last Thursday, moving residents to city-leased recreational vehicles. 

While the shower trailer is eventually intended for SFHC's next tiny-home village, Weiss offered to bring it where it was needed in the short term.

That ended up being the safe sleeping site in Civic Center, where SFHC delivered the shower trailer last week, and lent it to nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which is operating it in the near-term.

Since the start of the pandemic, Weiss said, she has repeatedly offered SFHC’s support to help address the mounting issues on Tenderloin sidewalks, but has received little to no interest from the Mayor’s office or the EOC.

She's frustrated that city agencies won't address her inquiries about starting a new safe sleeping site, even as they accept the free showers she's providing to their existing one.

"Why won't the city partner with us now, especially when they specifically aim to launch coordinated safe sleeping sites?" she asked.

Luna (MLK Park volunteer/neighbor), Alex, and Aljeron (SFHC organizer/steward) helped deliver SFHC's shower trailer to the Civic Center safe sleeping site last week. | Photo: Amy Farah Weiss

The EOC's Barnes defended the city's spending to guard the 180 Jones site, explaining that it's “standard procedure that City property under MOHCD’s jurisdiction have a security presence to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the surrounding neighborhood.”

Similar 24/7 security is in place at future affordable housing developments at  1515 South Van Ness Ave., 967 Mission St., and 730 Stanyan St., he said.

The security contract for the 730 Stanyan lot, formerly home to the Haight location of McDonald's, will end next week, as the space becomes a safe sleeping site for unhoused people in District 5.

While Barnes did not rule out the potential for 180 Jones to do the same during the ongoing public health crisis, he did not suggest it would be opened for that use anytime soon.

"The EOC is evaluating the feasibility of a multitude of sites for the Tenderloin’s response to COVID-19," he wrote.

The former McDonald's lot at 730 Stanyan is transitioning to become a city-sanctioned safe sleeping site. | Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline

While she's in favor of any form of safe shelter for those in need, Weiss believes that one of SFHC's organized tiny-home villages would be an improvement on the existing safe sleeping sites.

Instead of just keeping residents safe and socially distanced, she said, the villages would allow residents to take on responsibility and accountability for their collective living spaces, promoting stability and recovery from mental-health or substance use problems.

She also has data to prove it: SFHC interviewed 100 unhoused Tenderloin residents, all of whom said they would be willing to enter a team living situation. Many appeared in a video made by the group, calling on the Mayor to support the project.

“It’s not just about street homelessness," Weiss said. "It’s about anyone with housing insecurity, which is a lot of people the city’s solutions are not yet directly addressing."

Weiss still hopes that the Mayor's office and the EOC will reach out to her, so "we can lighten the load by using our network’s experience and expertise," she said. 

In the meantime, she's been communicating with the plaintiffs in the UC Hastings-led lawsuit, helping to figure out next steps that will keep Tenderloin residents — both housed and unhoused — safe. 

“The consistent message in [San Francisco's COVID-19] response remains that we need to ‘put them’ somewhere, rather than using this opportunity to build a community,” Weiss said.