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Political Notebook: Homelessness dominated Supe Ronen's freshman year

by Matthew S. Bajko

One issue dominated San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen's first year in office: homelessness. And it is likely to be her main focus again this year.

Elected in 2016 to the board's District 9 seat, which represents the Mission, Bernal Heights and Portola neighborhoods, Ronen succeeded gay former Supervisor David Campos, whom she had worked for as a legislative aide and was endorsed by in her hard-fought election campaign.

With her district a magnet for homeless encampments, Ronen made it a priority to find a compassionate approach to address the complaints of residents and merchants upset by the proliferation of homeless people sleeping in tents outside their homes and businesses that didn't just move the problem to another block or area of town. She worked with developers, state lawmakers, and the administration of the late Mayor Ed Lee, who unexpectedly died last month, to open several Navigation Centers in her district.

Unlike with homeless shelters, whose beds are assigned daily and come with strict rules on what a person can bring with them, the Navigation Centers provide homeless people temporary shelter for several months with the chance of moving into more permanent housing. Those who do move into a Navigation Center can do so with their belongings, pets, and fellow homeless individuals they have befriended.

Ronen credited the opening of such facilities in or near her district with helping to reduce the number of encampments in the Mission last year to 30. She said that number has since jumped back up to between 80 and 100 as the city works to open new Navigation Centers to replace those that had to close.

Working to address the city's homeless crisis, however, left her little time to deal with other pressing concerns.

"I was like a little executive in my neighborhood rather than a legislator. I haven't written much legislation or passed many bills because I spent so much of my time to get my hands around solving issues in my district," Ronen told the Bay Area Reporter this week during an editorial board meeting. "I ran to be a really engaged district supervisor. That is what I have been doing and been pretty successful at it."

However, Ronen did allow it has been "frustrating that I can't focus on my job as a legislator and lawmaker and instead my focus has literally been on finding sites for Navigation Centers and raising the money to fund them."

She thanked the development firm Lennar for agreeing to turn a building it plans to demolish in order to build housing at the site into a Navigation Center during the yearslong process it will take to secure building permits for the project. It marked the first time a Navigation Center was approved on private land as opposed to a site owned by the city.

"Lennar, to their credit and with a lot of assurances from me, really took a chance on us and said yes. That was a big deal, as no private developer has done that," noted Ronen.

One area she has intently focused on is the Highway 101 interchange off Cesar Chavez Street, as it is a favored site for homeless people to pitch their tents due to it being away from homes and storefronts. But the tent encampments present accessibility issues for pedestrians and bicyclists and a potential hazard to drivers.

In a much-derided move last month, the city's public works department placed boulders in the area to impede homeless individuals' ability to erect their tents. Yet they just moved to nearby sidewalks.

Ronen, who called the boulders "stupid," nonetheless praised the agency's director, Mohammed Nuru, for working to open more Navigation Centers. She told the B.A.R. she hopes the opening of one nearby the interchange, which is known as "the hairball," will provide a better solution and allow those living there to move off the streets.

"I am very hopeful it will make an impact on the hairball. It is such a bad spot for encampments," said Ronen. "I want to underground all those freeways. It is a car, bike, pedestrian catastrophe as far as I am concerned."

She added that "if people have better alternatives of where to stay, they are going to use those better alternatives. It is why I am hopeful having a Navigation Center right there will make the difference."

One top concern for Ronen this year is seeing Lee's initiative to provide an additional 1,000 navigation beds for the homeless come to fruition. She told the B.A.R. she is supportive of setting some aside for homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ, which her colleague, gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy has called on the city to do.

Yet neither Sheehy nor Ronen has been able to identify a workable site for a youth-focused Navigation Center. Even if such a site is found, Ronen said the city must also find more permanent housing for the homeless, whether they are youth, adults, or families.

"It is important that we address this issue and really address it," she said. "The Band-Aid solution we have been putting on this problem is not going to solve anything. Moving tent encampments from one block to the next is not going to solve anything."

With the city now focused on the special mayoral election in June, a race that has drawn two of her board colleagues, Ronen told the B.A.R. she questions what can be done at City Hall over the next five months. It is why she believes that board President London Breed, who became acting mayor upon Lee's death and is now running for the position, should be replaced with a "caretaker" mayor.

The supervisors are expected to take up the issue Tuesday, January 23. But with both Breed and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim in the mayoral race, it is unclear if the board can reach the six-vote threshold needed to name an interim mayor, whether it be Breed or someone else.

"I am deeply concerned with what is going to happen around street homelessness. I believe Mayor Lee was headed in the right direction and shared my urgency around this issue," said Ronen. "It was his top priority, like it was my top priority. We were in lock step; who knows what is going to happen now?"

Ronen does have three legislative priorities this year that concern LGBT issues. She introduced a measure that will require single-occupancy hotels to provide gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender residents. The board is expected to pass the legislation in early February.

She is also pushing to see the board take up her resolution, which she first introduced over the summer, to name Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport after the late supervisor Harvey Milk, the first gay person to win elective office in the city. It was a proposal backed by both Lee and Campos as a compromise to Campos' initial idea to rename the entire airport after Milk, who took his oath of office 40 years ago this month and was assassinated in November 1978.

Even naming just the terminal after Milk has been met with opposition. Ronen said she has been assured the delay on voting on the proposal has nothing to do with politics and is hopeful it will be approved in the coming weeks.

"We will see who is in Room 200 and what happens there. I am sure we will get six votes on the board because Supervisor Sheehy has been such an ally on this," said Ronen, who would like to see a veto-proof eight votes at the board for the Milk terminal naming.

The third proposal would make it easier to create, and protect, cultural heritage districts in the city. The measure, expected to be taken up in the spring, would specifically assist the plans to create a district honoring the leather and LGBT communities South of Market and a transgender-focused district in the Tenderloin.

"We are creating an entire process for getting all city agencies involved in both analyzing and documenting the historic features of these districts that should be preserved," said Ronen, who also expects to campaign for a city ballot measure this year that would provide funding for such districts. "We are also identifying other opportunities to further enhance those districts with arts, culture and preserving the people who make up the district."

Milk club early-endorses in SF races
Three candidates for local office in San Francisco secured early endorsements this week from the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club.

At its general membership meeting Tuesday night the progressive LGBTQ political club threw its support behind District 6 supervisor candidate Matt Haney, a straight man on the city's school board, and gay District 8 supervisor candidate Rafael Mandelman, a member of the City College board running to oust appointed Supervisor Jeff Sheehy from the seat. Both Sheehy, who is the board's first openly HIV-positive member, and Mandelman are former presidents of the Milk club.

Mia Satya, a transgender woman who works for the LGBT Community Center's economic development program, also secured the club's early backing in her bid for a seat on the board overseeing the San Francisco Unified School District.

The District 8 supervisor election will be on the June ballot, as Mandelman and Sheehy are running to serve out the remainder of gay former supervisor Scott Wiener's term, which expires in early January 2019. Wiener resigned after being elected to the state Senate in November 2016.

The two candidates are also expected to compete for a full four-year term on the board in the November election. The fall ballot will also include the contest for three school board seats and the race for the open District 6 supervisor seat, as the incumbent, Jane Kim, is barred from running again due to term limits.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, returns Monday, January 22.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes .

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or email m.bajko@ebar.com.

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