The Tenderloin's Burden

New homeless shelter proposal splits neighborhood

A proposal to open a 100-bed shelter for homeless families in the Tenderloin has spawned a debate that strikes at the heart of the neighborhood's recent attempts at economic revitalization. While shelter opponents say the neighborhood already plays host to more than its share of social services, others wonder if what has long been one of the city's most compassionate communities has reached its breaking point.

Despite protests from a number of neighborhood leaders that city officials have made an end run around community input, the city-funded shelter took a major leap forward last month when the Human Services Commission unanimously authorized the Department of Human Services to develop a final plan for the project.

The shelter, to be located in the Fire Department's former administrative headquarters at 260 Golden Gate Ave., must still clear its final hurdle at the Board of Supervisors' Finance and Labor Committee later this month. In June, the committee placed $1.3 million for the project in reserve until it could sift through community objections.

Jim Thompson of Tenderloin Community on Patrol.
Jim Thompson of Tenderloin Community on Patrol.

Though neighborhood opposition to homeless shelters and other low-income housing projects is certainly nothing new in San Francisco, the Tenderloin is in a unique position given its long-standing tradition of welcoming the poor. Plagued for decades by crime, vice, and poverty, the neighborhood has seen a growing effort in recent years to take back the streets and invigorate the local economy, an effort some feel will never succeed if the city continues to use the Tenderloin as a containment zone for homeless shelters and other social services.

"Every time we try to upgrade, there seems to be another dump truck that comes in and buries us again," says neighborhood resident Jim Thompson of the advocate group Tenderloin Community on Patrol. "It's just another indication that there are more of these coming down the pipe unless we stop it."

Others in the community, however, wonder how those opposed to the shelter can turn their backs on homeless families. "To call children and people 'dumping,' that's not good," says Roscoe Hawkins, community liaison for the nonprofit St. Anthony's Foundation. "They're human beings and they're people who need a chance to get back into the mainstream."

The proposed facility comes in response to a "no turn-away" policy for families seeking emergency shelter passed by the Board of Supervisors last fall. The shelter, funded through the Department of Human Services, would be run by the nonprofit Hamilton Family Center, and would provide food, medical care, and case management for 30 to 40 families. Residents would have access to a computer lab, a rooftop playground, substance-abuse counseling, and job and housing listings, and would be allowed to stay up to six months.

Though city officials claim they didn't initially intend to locate the shelter in the Tenderloin, they say skyrocketing real estate prices left them with little choice. "We are competing in a marketplace that has far outpriced our ability to do programs," says Maggie Donahue, director of the department's Division of Housing and Homeless Programs. "It's almost impossible to identify sites in the city that we can afford and that stay on the market for more than a week."

The department looked at three other potential sites in Bayview-Hunters Point last year, all of which had accessibility problems. In January, the Mayor's Office on Homelessness offered a fourth alternative -- the building on Golden Gate -- which has no such problems and, unlike the other three properties, is city-owned, and would thus require no rent.

According to Donahue, approximately 100 families are currently on the waiting list for shelter space, and face a delay of six to eight weeks. Most on the list are "marginally" housed -- staying with relatives or in residential hotels.

The number of families on the waiting list has risen over the past four years, but decreased from 155 since last fall. Also, the housing shortage is one that extends beyond the city's borders, Donahue says, as 40 percent of the families seeking shelter are from out of county.

With a housing stock comprised almost entirely of studio apartments and residential hotels, the Tenderloin lacks the homeowners' associations that normally spearhead opposition to low-income housing projects. Instead, community politics are dominated by advocacy groups and social service agencies, whose leaders are split on the shelter.

Some question why the city would open a family shelter in a neighborhood where many residents are afraid to walk the streets and rampant, open-air drug dealing is a daily fact of life. Others, however, say the Tenderloin has made great strides over the past few years toward improving conditions for the neighborhood's 4,000 children, adding a grade school and a children's playground, among other projects.

One objection that does seem unanimous stems from the process that led to the shelter. Neighborhood leaders say they were repeatedly told by the Mayor's Office that the building would continue to hold city offices after the Fire Department moved out last year. Then, in April, they learned the building would be used as a shelter.

"I just think it's not the best site, and we were promised something else," says Kelly Cullen, executive director of the nonprofit Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., which owns 1,000 units of low-income housing in the neighborhood. (TNDC has no official position on the project.) "Am I really, totally opposed? Not really, but I don't think it's the best place."

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the debate is that it opens the door on many of the issues the neighborhood will have to grapple with during its attempts at economic revitalization. While many feel the Tenderloin needs a mix of income levels to lure in neighborhood-serving businesses and improve the quality of life for those who live there now, some feel that desire has caused the community to turn its back on the needy at a time when rising rents are squeezing the poor like never before.

"I still feel like I owe the Tenderloin because of what I got from the people here," says Paul Boden, director of the Tenderloin-based Coalition on Homelessness, who was homeless himself when he first came to the neighborhood in 1982. "It's not about people anymore. It's about buildings, it's about lots, it's about grants, it's about money. ... It's kind of like saying there are enough poor people and no one else can come in."

Boden, who is heading up support for the project, says concessions offered by the city -- such as income from the building's 40 parking spaces, to be used for community projects, and an opportunity to locate a neighborhood-serving business on the ground floor -- led to his endorsement.

At the recent Human Services Commission meeting, a half-dozen or so Tenderloin residents and activists spoke against the shelter, but were outnumbered by more than 30 supporters, including homeless advocates and many speakers who identified themselves as formerly homeless mothers.

"This is a housing emergency and I don't see how we can put it off," said Commission President Jane Morrison prior to a unanimous vote in favor of the shelter.

At another meeting the following week, those opposed to the shelter weighed their options -- negotiating with the city for a moratorium on future shelters or other community benefits, fighting the proposal at the Finance Committee hearing, or filing a lawsuit alleging the process that led to the shelter was inadequate. No decision has yet been reached, and in the meantime, city officials say they will attempt to build neighborhood consensus.

"I would hope that between now and when it is going to be heard by the Finance Committee that the differences can be worked out," says Supervisor Leland Yee, who chairs the committee. "If they can't do it, then I guess the committee's going to have to step in and play the arbitrator, and we'll see what happens."

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