At least two California cities are now building their own open-air tent encampments for the homeless, putting on stark display the state’s present inability to safely get people indoors amid an unprecedented pandemic.
The new, so-called “sanctioned encampments” in Santa Rosa and San Francisco space out tents by several feet and enforce social distancing guidelines, improving upon the more crowded conditions in some encampments that previously left homeless people at greater risk for illness. They also offer basic services like food and security, and places to wash up and use the bathroom.
But such arrangements might be too little, too late, considering the circumstances of the pandemic, said Brian Edwards, an advocate with San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. Usually, sanctioned encampments are a welcome alternative to the more drastic measures cities take to control their homeless populations, like tearing down tents or issuing citations.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that this is here,” Edwards said. “But when I said I wanted to sanction encampments this year, I wasn’t thinking in the middle of a fucking pandemic when people should be in hotel rooms.”
San Francisco is expected to open several such encampments in the coming weeks. The city first invited people into its “Safe Sleeping Village” — a parking lot of 50 tents between a library and art museum, steps from City Hall — on Thursday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s unclear whether they’re cheaper or easier to set up when compared to hotel rooms, Supervisor Matt Haney told the San Francisco Examiner, but some homeless people have expressed their appreciation of the effort.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed has come under fire from advocates who believe that the city’s 8,000 homeless people should’ve been placed in hotel rooms weeks ago. The city’s Board of Supervisors demanded that Breed lease 7,000 rooms for especially vulnerable people by the end of April, although she said that was unrealistic in such a short timeframe.
Now, she’s embracing the sanctioned encampments amid the “immense” logistical challenges of putting people in hotels, she said in a Twitter thread on May 15.
“While in normal times I would say that we should focus on bringing people inside and not sanctioning tent encampments, we frankly do not have many other options right now,” Breed said on Twitter on May 15. “Having places with resources serving people in the neighborhood is better than unsanctioned encampments.”
The city is currently facing a lawsuit from residents of the Tenderloin district, where tent living has risen dramatically since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
San Francisco currently has 2,176 hotel or RV units “actively” available for those who need them, according to its own data, while 1,347 are occupied. Similarly, nearly half of the 15,000 hotel spots California secured for homeless people are sitting vacant right now, according to the Los Angeles Times. That means only about 5% of the state’s 151,000 homeless people have been moved into a safe, isolated room. Cities have said they lack the necessary resources to adequately staff hotel rooms and care for the people living inside, and that the rooms take weeks to prepare after they’re leased.
“I’m really worried about starting an encampment in the first place, and it kind of being accepted as something that’s normal and OK, because it’s not,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “We have the resources in this country to do better and we’re choosing not to.”
Santa Rosa’s temporary sanctioned encampment, meanwhile, opened Monday in the parking lot of a nearby community center, where it’s overseen by the Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. It’s expected to host about 140 people by the end of the week, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, while the city previously worked to place half as many homeless people in a local motel. Others were moved to vacant dorms at Sonoma State University.
Nearly 3,000 homeless people reside in Santa Rosa and the surrounding Sonoma County.
“The only reason we’re doing this is in response to our health emergency. This is new ground,” Tom Schwedhelm, Santa Rosa’s mayor, told local radio station KSRO Tuesday.
City officials did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment about whether there were any barriers to getting people into hotels.
Advocates have long pointed out there aren’t exactly available alternatives to outdoor living for the nation’s poor, particularly on the West Coast. Cities including San Francisco are in the throes of an affordable housing crisis, and adequate homeless shelter space wasn’t easy to come by even before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, with sickness spreading fast in congregate settings, remaining shelter beds can seem outright dangerous for those who could otherwise choose to bunker down in a tent outdoors.
Sanctioned encampments have been controversially taken up by a few cities in recent years as a last-ditch solution to control burgeoning homeless populations that would otherwise build their own makeshift communities, outside the purview of city officials.
Sweeps of those makeshift communities have continued during the pandemic, too, spurring outrage from homeless people and activists who are at this point well aware of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to leave tents alone if there’s no private space available.
“In the past, we saw legalized encampments as a transitional harm reduction positive; it’s better for people to be in a place where they know they can leave their tent, leave their belongings during the day, where they don’t have to worry that someone is going to steal them,” said Tars. “But I think in this time of the coronavirus, we’re seeing that there is a possibility, using FEMA dollars, to get people into full housing.”
Cover: An aerial view of San Francisco's first temporary sanctioned tent encampment for the homeless on May 18, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)