SF responds to Castro merchants' letter on homeless issues

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Friday August 26, 2022
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Castro merchants seem to have gotten the city's attention with a recent letter about quality of life issues in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Castro merchants seem to have gotten the city's attention with a recent letter about quality of life issues in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter

That angry letter sent by the Castro Merchants Association to numerous city leaders earlier this month has resulted in a response from two city officials. Detailing a laundry list of issues Castro residents and merchants have long been struggling with, including the presence of homeless encampments and large numbers of individuals with apparent mental health issues harassing residents, businesses, and visitors to the LGBTQ neighborhood, the letter implored officials "to take action."

What's generated the most buzz surrounding the merchants' August 8 letter is the threat of civil disobedience by businesses withholding the fees they pay to the city.

The one official response the merchants group has received has been a lengthy letter from Dr. Hillary Kunins, director of Behavioral Health Services and Mental Health SF with the Department of Public Health, and Noelle Simmons, chief deputy director at the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. That letter outlines the numerous actions the city and DPH have taken or are undertaking to address the issues discussed in CMA's letter.

Reaction has also been coming in from residents of the LGBTQ neighborhood. More than two weeks after the letter was sent out, and one week after the Bay Area Reporter broke the story, the merchants association has heard from a lot of other individuals and neighborhood groups voicing the same frustrations, said Dave Karraker, co-president of the CMA and owner of MX3 Fitness on Market Street. He said he had received 30 emails from various individuals as well as professional organizations and businesses.

The response has been strong enough that he's now talking about forming a coalition of stakeholders to get the city to take more action. Other neighborhood groups such as Corbett Heights Neighbors, Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, and Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association have also reached out, Karraker said. The B.A.R. reached out to those organizations for comment but they did not respond by press time.

Paul Allen, a retired 30-year resident who resides in Corona Heights, said he supports the CMA's efforts. Although he's the secretary for the Corbett Heights Neighbors, that organization won't be able to take up the matter until its next meeting in September, he said.

"Personally, I completely support what the merchants are doing and the issues they're raising," Allen said.

The former corporate attorney said he had heard District Attorney Brooke Jenkins speak about the issue recently, and he was pleased to hear her call for more coordination among city departments in handling the issue.

"We need more than talk and plans," Allen said. "We need action and results."

Cedric Ng, a gay man and, along with his husband, a homeowner in the Castro for the past two years, was another one of those individuals who reached out to Karraker. Citing his own frustrations, Ng told the B.A.R. he felt great sympathy not only for the small business owners but for those unhoused, as well.

"We need a coordinated effort," said Ng. "Help us and help the homeless. We can't just let them rot on the sidewalk."

Ng said he'd like to see Mayor London Breed and city officials lay out a timeline for their efforts to deal with the problem, with regular updates much as Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, did during the height of the COVID pandemic.

"Is someone doing something?," he asked. "And can you show us?"

Businesses have been feeling the effects for quite some time and, for Cruisin' the Castro Walking Tours owner Kathy Amendola, whose work entails guiding visitors through the streets of the neighborhood, the issues are front and center.

In a letter to the B.A.R., Amendola recounted an episode that occurred one morning in July.

"Within the first 45 [minutes] of my walking tour, the group was approached 5 times between the flag, Beaux and Market at Noe," Amendola stated, referring to the rainbow banner at Market and Castro streets and a nearby business.

"Five individuals — crazy, drug-infused junkies — walked up and stood with my tour group while belligerent, barefoot, smelly; one guy was taking a hit off his meth pipe and another was screaming bloody murder and pulling his pants down and mooning traffic," she continued. "I had my finger on my pepper spray each incident. Over the past few years, it's been very dangerous for me to operate walking tours, no matter what time of day it is."

On another day, in the space of two and a half hours, she said, she encountered five different episodes with some of the Castro's street denizens who yelled directly at her guests; blocked the entry to Pink Triangle Park while using drugs, forcing her group to find another way to see the monument to LGBTQ Holocaust victims; exposed themselves to her guests and a school group; another guy urinated on himself and others camped out on the sidewalk in front of Walgreens; and a "pantless" man exposed himself on the street.

The ongoing instances of "open drug use, encampments, lawlessness, crime, and absence of [San Francisco Police Department] upholding a dozen public health and safety code violations, useless city services, and extremely negative behavior in the Castro is unacceptable and detrimental to our businesses, daily lives, and the mental health of an entire community," Amendola wrote.

These incidents add to the anxiety of an already traumatized community, she said.

Members of the LGBTQ community "already suffer 2.5 times more from stress, anxiety, and depression due to social oppression. This is absolute discrimination on behalf of the city and has created a mental health crisis in the Castro," she said.

Widespread publicity

Since the B.A.R. story appeared, several local news organizations, including KTVU 2, ABC 7, SFist, and the San Francisco Chronicle, have reported on CMA's letter as well.

Although the letter never stated the group's intentions if their pleas weren't met with action, Karraker told the B.A.R. and other media outlets that CMA members would resort to civil disobedience if they had to. Castro merchants could begin withholding the fees they pay to the city until they see action, he said.

"It's clear to me based on reaction, too many people have just had it," Karraker said in a phone interview.

One statistic that Karraker routinely points to is that some 50% of unhoused people refuse shelter, and efforts to assist those who are clearly incapable of making sound decisions for themselves run up against state laws. Further efforts to make conservatorship laws more responsive have met strong resistance from civil rights advocates, as well as disability activists.

In her response, Kunins notes that one of the key issues she addresses is the problem officials have with folks who refuse the services offered to them.

"For individuals who consistently decline assistance, city agencies are collaborating to use every tool we possess to support the individual's wellbeing and welfare and to protect community safety, including involuntary care when individuals are eligible," Kunins' letter stated.

"However, California state law sets a very high threshold for these holds, and often that threshold is not met, even when it looks to the public like an individual 'needs help,'" she continued. "To address the rising concerns in the Castro, we have established a weekly case conference specifically focused on individuals identified as needing assistance by the Castro community. Through regular case conferences across departments, we problem solve individual cases and collaborate to engage and connect individuals with care."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who has been deeply involved in efforts to deal with that issue, said he understands CMA's — and others' — frustrations. More beds are needed, he said, not only in San Francisco but throughout the Bay Area.

"It requires a heightened police response and a heightened health response," he said, acknowledging that they're already doing so but it needs to be done more effectively.

"I think, as a state, we're not where we need to be and the effects are felt very much in a place like San Francisco," he told the B.A.R.

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