Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Wiener criticized for letter on tent camps


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San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener has drawn criticism in recent days for his request to other city officials for information on the city's tent encampments and how to get the people living in them into shelters and housing.

The number of tents shielding some of the city's thousands of homeless people appears to have recently swelled, especially near Highway 101 in the South of Market neighborhood.

Many have taken Wiener's message to mean that he wants to get rid of the tents immediately, an idea that one homeless advocate called "inhumane."

In his January 19 message to Police Chief Greg Suhr, Health Director Barbara Garcia, and other department heads, Wiener, a gay man, said he wants to know about efforts to move people from tents into housing or shelters, and work to "enforce the bans on tents in our public spaces."

The tents "are a public health and safety hazard for those living in them and for our neighborhoods," Wiener wrote. "They are neither humane nor acceptable. Their growing prevalence in San Francisco represents our city's failure to provide adequate housing/shelter and assistance for those who want help, as well as a failure to make clear to those who refuse help that tents on our sidewalks and in our public spaces are unacceptable. We need to know what is driving this specific homeless population, and what we can do to promptly transition tent occupants into housing/shelter and to eliminate these tents in a humane way."

Wiener seeks data about how many tents there are, who's living in them, the number of vacant shelter beds, and what the city's plans are to "to expand shelter and navigation center capacity."

In his letter, the District 8 supervisor asks, "Assuming the availability of enough shelter beds, what will be done to remove illegal tent 
encampments from our streets? In other words, does the city intend to remove these tents as part of a transition of the tent occupants to housing or shelter, or will the law continue to be ignored, as it is being ignored today?"



In an email distributed Monday that said Wiener was making the "inhumane" move of calling "to ban tents in the midst of a rainstorm," Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said, "Mr. Weiner'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."

TJ Johnston, "a homeless constituent," said in the email that "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."

Brian Basinger, director of AIDS Housing Alliance/San Francisco, said in a Facebook post Tuesday that Wiener "never misses an opportunity to kick a queen when she's down."

Basinger said, "So many of [Wiener's] ilk have been elected to office by triggering voters negative feelings about a particular group of humans."

Referring to a Republican presidential candidate who's well known for his bigotry, Basinger said, "Donald Trump appeals to our lesser natures on Mexicans and Muslims. Scott Weiner uses the same playbook on people who have lost their homes."

Asked Tuesday about the criticism his letter's drawn, Wiener, who's running against fellow Supervisor Jane Kim for the state Senate, said, "There's a certain school of politics that's very cynical, where you distort and twist what people say to suit your own political goals."

He said he wasn't looking for the tents to be removed "tomorrow."

"I'm asking, 'What is our plan to transition people living in tents out of the tents and into shelter and housing?'" he said. "The two need to go hand in hand."

Officials need to look at increasing shelter capacity, among other needs, and when more resources become available, "we need to make sure the tents go away."

"What is cruel and inhumane is to have a status quo where people are living in tents on our sidewalks," Wiener said, adding, "I'm concerned that we have hit or we will hit a state of inertia where people just get used to these tents being out there, and we as a city will not work hard enough to get them out of the tents."

Matthew Doherty, a federal homeless official, was in San Francisco this week. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Matthew Doherty, the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, was in San Francisco this week meeting with Sam Dodge, director of the city's Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement office, and other officials.

Doherty, a gay man, said at a meeting Tuesday with Dodge and reporters that he wasn't familiar with Wiener's letter, but "we can't accept" that tent encampments are "the best that we can accomplish."

He said more information about the tents and what options may be available to the people staying in them "can only help us" as officials continue to craft responses to homelessness.

Dodge, one of the recipients of Wiener's letter, said it's "a situation that needs to be taken on" with people's eyes fully open. There have been "tragic incidents of violence and victimization" in the encampments, he said.

"We can do better, and we need to do better," Dodge said.

Wiener's letter was first reported by KQED.


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