At the April 8 meeting of the Board of Supervisors budget committee, City Controller Ben Rosenfield reported San Francisco hotels were providing 1,977 rooms to the homeless during the Covid-19 pandemic at an estimated cost of $35 million for 90 days. District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen was an early, vocal supporter of the plan, saying in March, “If we have empty hotel rooms and someone doesn’t have a home to shelter in place, we must lend them the room.” I guess Ronen actually thought rooms would be lent. “We’re paying $197 per night?” she asked in disbelief. But Rosenfield had an even bigger bombshell — Mayor London Breed’s plan to procure 7,000 total hotel units would set taxpayers back $105 million for 90 days.
If those numbers aren’t crazy enough, the San Francisco Department of Public Health is providing alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco “through private funding” to addicts in those $197-a-night hotel rooms as a “harm reduction technique.” Harm reduction, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, is “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.” Reduce negative consequences? That’s a poster statement for the way San Francisco handles its drug crisis, and not just during a pandemic.
WHO CALLS THE SHOTS?
When I was a kid, my mom put a plate of halibut and fennel in front of me for dinner. “I don’t like fennel,” I said. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” my mom responded. “When you’re buying your own food, you can eat what you want.” My mom would have made an excellent homeless czar. While Jennifer Friedenbach and the Coalition on Homelessness, the city’s de facto homeless marketing agency, are fond of saying “the unhoused have no choice,” in reality, they have too many choices, leading to a contemptuous relationship with angry residents fed up with the human waste, open drug use, and crime overtaking their neighborhoods.
When word got out about the free hotels and city-sanctioned pot and booze room service, transients made the trek hoping to find Meth Mecca. According to the “Tenderloin Neighborhood Safety Assessment Plan for Covid-19,” the number of tents ballooned 285 percent between January and early May. It’s gotten so bad UC Hastings College of the Law and others filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent San Francisco from continuing to use the Tenderloin as a containment zone for open-air drug dealing and homeless encampments by selectively enforcing the law.
San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, whose department and paramedics frequently interact with the homeless, confirmed the majority they meet now are new to the city. “The initial site by the Asian Art Museum, at least 70 to 75 percent of those folks were very recently from out of town,” Nicholson told KRON 4 News. “What they’re telling us is ‘I just came here from Lake County.’ ‘I just got out of jail’ or ‘I’m here from Stockton and I heard I could get X, Y, and Z.’ We’ve had people walk up to our members and say, ‘Hey, where do I get a tent? How do I get a hotel room?’”
TAKING BACK CONTROL
Last summer I visited Community First Village in Austin, Tex., (“Dignity through accountability,” August 2019), a successful 51-acre master-planned community providing affordable, permanent housing and support for around 50 percent of Austin’s homeless population, all privately funded. It was a 30-minute drive outside the city, and that makes perfect sense, particularly for those with substance issues. “If I was downtown Austin where I used to get my drugs, I’d be right back using again,” one young man told me. Frankly, the mayor and every member of the Board of Supervisors should make a trip to Austin, because the village model is the only way to get a handle on this.
It starts with a large piece of property outside the city — not too far, but far enough away from the temptations of the Tenderloin. Let’s say the Cow Palace, which sits on 68 acres. Far-fetched you say? Not at all. In 2019, Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Phil Ting introduced SB281, banning gun shows and transferring control of the Cow Palace from a state-appointed board to a local joint powers authority with a plan to build affordable housing. The gun show ban passed in January, but they dropped the development issue. Time to rethink that.
What would a village at the Cow Palace look like? A lot like Community First, where people live in RVs and tiny homes with access to a medical facility, counseling, and rehab. They also have organic farming, an auto shop, a culinary program, art studios, and blacksmithing — micro enterprises that have produced over a million dollars of “dignified income” for residents. While there’s no sobriety requirement, founder Alan Graham (who lives on the property in a tiny home) says they see an 80 percent drop in drugs and a 60 percent drop in alcohol once people settle in, which likely has something to do with his deal breaker: “If you don’t make it to work and pay your rent, you’re gone.”
Graham says he serves the chronically homeless, “like the Tenderloin.” And if you think creating structure and having rules doesn’t work, you’d be wrong: Community First Village has a retention rate of nearly 90 percent.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
So how do you get people there? Start by enforcing the law, then give them two choices: Go to jail or go to the village. Who will run the village? Nonprofit organizations. In fiscal year 2014–15 (the last time San Francisco had a homeless audit) more than $175 million went to 61 community groups. Shockingly, there’s no system for tracking their performance, but with 8,000 people living on the street and a city in disarray because of it, I think it’s fair to say it’s not very good. At the village, these groups would be onsite using their expertise to set residents up for success. The central location would also make it easier to monitor their track record. And if they fail? No more money, because at the village, city grants would be performance based.
And what about the severely mentally ill who are unable to make it at the village? We need to put them somewhere safe, where they won’t be victimized and can’t do harm to themselves or others.
What if someone says they’d rather go to jail than to the village, and when they get out of jail they go back to their old ways? You buy them a bus ticket home. When they get there, instead of telling friends that San Francisco is Meth Mecca with free hotels providing weed and alcohol room service, they’ll say, “You can go to the village and get your life together or go to jail and get a bus ticket back here.” I bet the number of drug users coming to San Francisco would dwindle in no time — and with fewer buyers, so would the drug dealers.
I can already hear homeless advocates saying how mean I am. How dare I expect people to make something of themselves — get counseling, go to rehab, learn a trade, get a job. But I would say the same about their lack of expectations, which has led to thousands of people living in filthy tents and dying with needles full of fentanyl stuck in their necks.
Truth be told, San Francisco has declared open season on itself. The mayor, able to command an entire city to shelter in place, can’t stem the tide of tents. Frustrated police are told to leave tent dwellers alone. Even when they arrest serial drug dealers, lenient judges release them the same day. Supervisors ignore the cries of their constituents while bowing to the beneficiaries of a multimillion-dollar homeless industry they helped to create. And voters made it worse by electing Chesa Boudin, a known criminal sympathizer, as district attorney.
The only way to take back the city is to get tough, an unfamiliar concept at City Hall. I’m not sure they have it in them, but I hope they do. Otherwise San Francisco will be doomed, not because of the Covid-19 pandemic but because of the drug pandemic. In the words of the young man at Community First Village, “Is it hard? Hell yeah. But if I hadn’t come here, I’d be dead.”
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