Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Politics & Govt
Published on May 26, 2020
Neighbors, led by Amoeba Music owner, consider legal action against Haight tent villageAmoeba Music is located next door to the proposed safe sleeping site. | Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline

Several groups of Upper Haight residents and business owners are opposing the city's planned "safe sleeping site" in the neighborhood, with one group — led by the owner of record store Amoeba Music, which borders the site — considering legal action.

Last week, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston announced that the city-owned former McDonald's lot at 730 Stanyan St. would be turned into the district's first tent village for unhoused people, as a response to the COVID-19 emergency.

The site is intended to promote social distancing among its 50 or so residents, with six feet of spacing between tents. It will also have on-site water and basic hygiene and sanitation facilities, which people on the Haight's streets currently lack — contributing to the potential for COVID-19 spread.

Work is underway to establish infrastructure and services for tent residents at 730 Stanyan. | Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline

The effort is being billed as an emergency measure, with the tents set to be removed from the lot once the city's state of emergency for COVID-19 ends. (The lot is eventually set to become a 100% affordable housing development, which the city estimates will start construction in 2022.)

But over the past week, neighbors have begun lining up against the temporary tent village. The Cole Valley Improvement Association (CVIA), Buena Vista Park Neighborhood Association, Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, and a newly minted anonymous group of neighbors called Safe Healthy Haight have all signed formal letters of opposition to the city's use of the site as a shelter.

The potential legal action against the city is being led by another new group, dubbed Concerned Citizens of the Haight. Joe Goldmark, the managing partner of Amoeba Music, confirmed to Hoodline that he is steering the effort and working with a legal team.

"We're contemplating our legal alternatives," said Goldmark, whose store (currently closed under the shelter-in-place order) borders the proposed safe sleeping site.

Paul Geffner of Escape From New York Pizza, which is located a few doors down from the site, has also joined the effort. [Update, 5/27:  Amoeba and EFNY share managing partners, though neither business initially disclosed their affiliation.]

The various groups' concerns about the safe sleeping site center largely on public safety. In its letter, the CVIA says that it's concerned about "the risk of COVID-19 outbreak and spread in the community, [with] this location being in a high-foot-traffic area that residents depend on."

But without the safe sleeping site, District 5's unhoused residents will likely continue to use the neighborhood's equally high-traffic sidewalks. In recent weeks, unhoused people have congregated in ad-hoc sidewalk tent villages at Haight Street & Masonic Avenue, Waller & Stanyan streets, and other locations. The tents have no access to toilets or hand-washing, and are often spaced less than six feet apart.

Many opponents of the safe sleeping site also expressed concern that residents of the site will be allowed to come and go at will — just like San Franciscans sheltering in their homes and apartments. 

The safe sleeping site's administrators, Larkin Street Youth Services and the Homeless Youth Alliance, say that they will monitor the lot, barring any group congregation in or around it. Meals will also be provided on-site, so residents don't have to leave for food.

Tents on the sidewalk at Masonic and Haight have been a source of complaints from some neighbors. | Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline

In their complaints, some of the neighborhood groups call on the city to move the safe sleeping site to the Kezar Stadium parking lot. Others have suggested using the basketball courts adjacent to the Panhandle Park playground, which have been closed to ensure social distancing. Some seek an expansion of the hotel shelter program that the mayor's office stonewalled.

Preston's office says that the site would only be used for three to six months total. But many of the project's opponents, including Goldmark, expressed skepticism that the site would be dismantled after the state of emergency is over.

"We haven't had much luck with the city keeping promises around here," Goldmark said.

Escape From New York's Geffner told Hoodline that his pizzeria has been a longtime supporter of homelessness charities. But he believes a safe sleeping site would have a disastrous impact on the neighborhood's tourist traffic, which has already been slow thanks to a years-long public works project that's impeded streets and sidewalks. 

"It's life or death for [Haight small businesses] right now," he said.

Still, it's unclear how much traction these efforts will get. Permission to use the site for a tent village comes directly from the Office of the Mayor, which is operating with expanded powers under the declared COVID-19 state of emergency.

Work on setting up the site is also well underway, with an estimated launch date within days, not weeks, according to Preston's office.

Jen Snyder, Preston's legislative aide, said that her office is focused on making the site a success. She noted that it will have 24/7 supervision and security, be wrapped with a privacy screen and offer essential health services to ensure residents are tested and treated for the COVID-19 virus or other critical health issues.

Ultimately, Snyder said, the site should be a net safety gain to the Haight — providing an answer "for people asking, 'How am I supposed to get physically clean and not spread disease?'"

Preston's office will be hosting an online information session about the safe sleeping site this Thursday, May 28 at 5 p.m. Neighbors can join via Zoom to learn more about the plan and ask questions.