Voters to decide homeless tent policies

A measure headed for the November ballot making it easier for police to remove homeless tent encampments on short notice is likely to face stiff opposition from homeless advocates and progressives.

Supervisor Mark Farrell submitted his “Housing Not Tents” initiative Wednesday with the support of Supervisors Scott Wiener, Katy Tang and Malia Cohen.

The measure, which requires a simple majority to pass, would allow police to remove homeless encampments as long as they provide 24 hours notice in writing and offer a specific shelter bed or housing opportunity.

The city’s Department of Public Works would store personal belongings taken from encampments for up to 90 days after removal, according to the measure.

Homeless tent encampments became a highly visible and contentious symbol of the city’s housing crisis this winter as they sprang up in large numbers in the South of Market neighborhood and other areas.

The City conducted sweeps in some areas including Division Street after the Department of Public Health issued 72-hour notices declaring the camps to be a health hazard. At least some of those displaced in the sweeps were offered beds in city shelters, but residents complained that in many cases they simply relocated to new spots a few blocks away.

Farrell’s measure is expected to meet with opposition from advocates for the homeless and progressives, who have argued that the city does not have enough viable shelter beds and housing opportunities to give all of those displaced by sweeps somewhere to go.

Farrell said he believed the city would have sufficient revenue for homeless housing, Navigation Centers and homelessness programs for his policy to succeed:

“It is not compassionate to allow human beings to live in tents on our streets – it is both dangerous and unhealthy. … The answer to homelessness is housing, not tents. The City of Saint Francis needs to do everything in our power to get the homeless into housing and out of these encampments.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the city already has multiple laws on the books allowing police to remove the homeless and their camps. She noted that the measure would only require police to offer one night in a shelter bed, making it no better than the status quo:

“We have laws that make it illegal for people to sleep on the streets and that’s clearly not working. … We would like to see an approach that doesn’t use homeless people as political fodder.”

Supervisor John Avalos in April announced he was working with the coalition on legislation establishing guidelines for the relocation of those living in camps, but that legislation is still being developed. Freidenbach said members of her group met with Farrell just last week to discuss that legislation, and were not told then of his pending ballot measure.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights activists also delivered a letter of demand to the city earlier this month challenging the legality of the city’s process for confiscating and destroying the belongings of the homeless.