Open Letter by TJ Johnston

Dear Supervisor Scott Wiener,
I just learned from a KQED news item on January 25 that you were interested in moving the homeless people who are living in encampments throughout San Francisco into transitional and/or permanent housing. That is a laudable objective.
At the same time, I also learned that you inquired about enforcing the ban on tents in public areas. As someone who has covered homelessness for numerous Bay Area publications, I feel compelled to tell you how problematic this two-pronged approach could be, especially during this El Niño season. Actually, a couple of noted homeless advocates could eloquently speak to this point.
First, here’s Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project: “There is simply nowhere for homeless people to go. They are sheltering themselves as best as they can in leaking tents in the midst of a storm, and here Supervisor Wiener, in a low blow to people struggling to survive, calls on the City to enforce a tent ban. He seems to forget that only the most heartless San Franciscan would send humans to shiver in the cold.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet, one of the papers for which I write, adds: “Mr. Wiener’s letter is in direct contrast to the very spirit of the City of St. Francis. His timing was telling, as was his lack of solutions. Homeless people are suffering enough, and his letter was surprisingly cruel.”
Now that I got the criticism out of the way, I’d like to move on to your request to other city officials — such as Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer and Sam Dodge from the Mayor’s HOPE office — about the homeless encampments throughout the city. You had some specific questions about our homeless city residents, and while I might not be able to answer every one, there are some I could answer from the top of my head.
You asked about the people living in tents. I think it’s obvious that they are camping out in tents for the lack of other viable housing options. Even though I can’t place an exact figure as to how many people are living in tents, I think it’s fair to assume that they are in significant numbers.
As to how they would differ from other segments of the homeless population, like those staying in the adult emergency shelters or the recently opened Navigation Center, I’d hazard a guess that they would find the process to enter the shelter too cumbersome. The shelter system for single adults has about 1,200 beds, and last year’s point-in-time homeless count estimates almost 6,700, although the actual number could be more since it’s usually considered an undercount. By more conservative estimates, there is just one shelter bed for every six homeless people. Odds are, they might not be able to get a bed for that night.
At the drop-in center at MSC South on Fifth and Bryant streets, people have to wait outside for hours, then submit their belongings to a search from security. It might be easier to just pitch a tent on the sidewalk rather than testing their luck at the shelter bed lottery.
As to how many vacancies in the shelter system, you could easily go to the city’s Shelter Monitoring Committee’s page on

“Wet Night On Sutter Street.” Painting by Christine Hanlon, oil on canvas.
“Wet Night On Sutter Street.” Painting by Christine Hanlon, oil on canvas.

The monthly occupancy reports usually show the shelters operating at near-capacity. What data the city doesn’t have — and would benefit from gathering — is the number of people turned away from shelters each night.
To answer your question about health hazards faced by the inhabitants, colds, pneumonia and exposure come to mind, as they would be aggravated in the recent rainfalls. Also, it’s not unheard of that other pre-existing conditions, such as physical, mental and emotional disabilities, would exacerbate when one does not have stable, indoor housing.
As you might already be aware, the city has opened makeshift rainy-day shelters throughout the city, as well as expanding the capacity of existing shelters. St. Anthony Foundation, the Gene Friend Recreation Center and even the Conservatory of Flowers are among the few that have opened their doors to people seeking an indoor spot to sleep. And, Piers 29 and 80 have been suggested as potential safe harbors for homeless residents.
But lately, there has been a problem in alerting homeless people of their availability. Anecdotes suggest that operators of the city’s 311 telephone system themselves aren’t provided this information, thus leaving people out in the rain.
You asked, “What are the barriers to transitioning people from tents into housing?” I can provide one possible explanation. Last year, I was a peer researcher for the Coalition on Homelessness’s report “Punishing the Poorest.” The majority of people we surveyed and interviewed said they received citations from the police mostly for sitting, lying and resting outside. Most of the time, they are unable to pay their fines and are consequently issued an arrest warrant.
Eventually, when they do get collared, they serve out their punishment in the county jail. Upon release, they get a record, which automatically disqualifies them from public housing. Any civil assessments incurred for nonpayment of fines would appear on their credit report, creating another barrier to housing.
In short, the criminalization of acts by homeless people keeps them in a cycle of poverty. So in all probability, your inquiry to enforce a ban on sidewalk tents could perpetuate this cycle.
If you have any further questions, feel free to contact the Coalition on Homelessness — or any of your homeless constituents in District 8.
TJ Johnston