Box City Is a New Model for Transitional Housing

An experiment in cooperative living offers San Francisco's homeless an alternative to tent encampments.

San Francisco spends $241 million a year on homeless services, yet still has between 80 and 100 encampments and a homeless population of about 6,500. Every one of us shakes our heads at the fact that the city spends so much on the problem of homelessness, and visibly it just seems to get worse.

One group is piloting a project to improve the situation. Out in an industrial patch by the Caltrain tracks at Seventh and Hubbell streets, Box City is a self-managed community co-op powered by a small army of community volunteers and a large supply of gift certificates.

The folks behind Box City don’t call it an encampment. They call it a “transitional sleep and service hub” or a “transitional eco-village.” There are community rules, and they discourage unsightly tents. Instead, Box City is a half-block lineup of sheds, embellished wood carts, tiny A-frames, and a functioning portable toilets. Some structures are equipped with hinged doors or locks, and one even has a quaint little fake chimney on top.

But the project is about a lot more than aesthetics, though several volunteer builders chip in on improving the structures. It’s funded by the nonprofit Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, whose founder Amy Farah Weiss tells SF Weekly, “The goal is to actually identify the spots that are more ideal, to bring in the support for organizing and to reduce the pain points for both unhoused and housed residents.”

“Pain points,” in the lingo of advocates for the homeless, are human waste, needles, trash, chop shops, crime, unsightly tents, and the other unpleasantness associated with homeless encampments.

Tents “are a challenge both security-wise for people to get secure sleep, and they’re also not pleasing aesthetically to the eye,” Farah Weiss explains. “This group all have invested the time in building their own sleep structures. You’re actually not supposed to have a tent at Box City, you’re supposed to invest the time in building a structure and being a part of the community to maintain the area.”

The roughly 20 residents — who have operated as a core group since their previous encampment on Division Street was cleared during the Super Bowl sweeps — manage a self-policed community with structured systems to handle garbage and human waste. In return for a clean camp, local businesses offer gift certificates and volunteer workers help upgrade the structures. The Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge covers the cost of the portable toilets.

“We increase accountability to the residents at these encampments, then we can ask for more accountability back,” Farah Weiss says.

The structures at Box City resemble do-it-yourself dumpster-dive projects from the “tiny house” craze. That’s not a coincidence. The tiny house movement was inspired by things that homeless people have been doing for years: building houses out of trash for no money.

The residences are “small enough to be mobile but big enough to enjoy,” volunteer carpenter Greg Kloehn says.

Box City is not sanctioned by the city, but it has some police volunteer support and hopes to present itself to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing as a vastly more cost-effective alternative to current levels of city spending.

“It’s not adding to the amount of money, it’s redirecting it from an ineffective tool, which is currently the police, to an effective resource,” Farah Weiss notes.

“We’re working with the DPW to make their jobs easier and less costly,” she adds. “Thus far, there haven’t been any major bumps in the road.”

The Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge is happy to take online donations, but there’s one crucial way you can support them for free.

“I encourage people to vote no on Propositions Q and R,” Farah Weiss urges, referring to measures to ban tents on sidewalks and enhance San Francisco Police Department efforts to enforce the ban. “They don’t add any housing or solutions to this issue.”

Box City also does not add “housing” in the sense that people are still living on the streets.

“These people are living in this off-grid urban situation that isn’t ideal in so many ways,” Farah-Weiss says. “But in some ways, you’re going to find more of the ideal American community aspects in this group. They’re looking out for one another and their family. They’re looking to organize and find a new path.”

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