Castro merchants demand beds for unhoused residents in letter to SF officials

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 17, 2022
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In May 2020, tents appeared on narrow Prosper Street near the Harvey Milk Branch Library. The Castro Merchants Association wrote in a recent email to city officials that problems associated with unhoused residents in the LGBTQ neighborhood have become untenable. Photo: Rick Gerharter
In May 2020, tents appeared on narrow Prosper Street near the Harvey Milk Branch Library. The Castro Merchants Association wrote in a recent email to city officials that problems associated with unhoused residents in the LGBTQ neighborhood have become untenable. Photo: Rick Gerharter

A letter decrying the increasingly difficult circumstances under which small businesses in the Castro find themselves struggling has been emailed to various city officials, including Mayor London Breed. In it, the group demanded that 35 beds in the city's unhoused system be designated for unhoused people in the Castro and offered other suggestions.

David Karraker, co-president of the Castro Merchants Association that sent the letter, told the Bay Area Reporter the situation has become untenable.

"We've reached a point where people feel like they can't run a successful business in the Castro with this kind of barrier," he said, adding that civil disobedience may be business owners' only solution if the city doesn't act. Castro merchants could begin withholding the fees they pay to the city until they see action, he said.

Dated August 8, the email reminds officials of the numerous efforts the group has made over the years to get help from city leaders and that the neighborhood be made "a priority area for services, given its stature as one of the most visited (and photographed) neighborhoods in the city."

"For the past four years, we have sought city help to address the rising problem of people with behavioral health/substance use disorders taking up residence on our sidewalks, dramatically impacting the quality of life in our neighborhood and the ability to run a successful business," the letter begins.

Many of the people the letter describes are well known to the merchants and denizens of Castro Street and the surrounding area, and "this group of people regularly experiences psychotic episodes — screaming, acting out irrationally, vandalizing storefronts. They need shelter and/or services and they need them immediately," the message continued.

The email was addressed not only to Breed, but to gay San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax and top DPH staffer Hillary Kunins; Police Chief William Scott; City Attorney David Chiu and Director of Executive Affairs for the City Attorney Luis Zamora; bi Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Executive Director Shireen McSpadden; and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

Jen Kwart, director of communications and media relations for the city attorney, said her office was reaching out to a number of civic groups and agencies about similar issues.

"While the city attorney's role in these situations is typically limited to supporting city departments in their efforts to address issues," Kwart told the B.A.R. in an email, "we are in the process of setting up a meeting with representatives of the Dolores Heights Improvement Club, Castro Merchants, Castro [Community Benefit District], and Save the Castro."

For residents and regular visitors, the telltale signs of blight on streets in the LGBTQ neighborhood are familiar. From the group of people typically camped out in front of Walgreens at 18th and Castro streets — a spot Karraker refers to as "the morgue" because of all the individuals who have passed out there and had to be resuscitated — to the petty crimes and graffiti to smashed windows.

"Yet, even after constant requests to city agencies, including criminal charges and restraining order requests, they remain on our streets week after week harassing residents, tourists, and business owners/employees," the letter continues. "Our community is struggling to recover from lost business revenue, from burglaries and never-ending vandalism/graffiti (often committed by unhoused persons) and we implore you to take action."

As of August 16, eight days after the email was sent, the merchants group has yet to receive even an acknowledgement from any of the recipients except for Mandelman, said Karraker. Mandelman, on vacation in Provincetown, did not return a message seeking comment.

McSpadden, who oversees the city's homeless services, was out of the office and unavailable to comment. Breed's office, DPH, and SFPD did not return messages seeking comment.

Suggestions from merchants

Rather than merely lamenting the absence of what Castro Merchants members might consider concrete actions on the part of the city, the letter offered three suggestions as to how the city might move forward in helping the Castro merchants.

The group requested the city designate 35 beds, "including shelter beds, treatment beds, and locked subacute beds for the Castro that service providers can offer to those mentally ill and substance-abusing individuals who have taken up residence in the Castro." That figure, said Karraker, comes from a list the CMA maintains naming more than 20 individuals who hang out on the streets of the Castro the organization regards as repeat offenders.

The merchants also asked that the city "[d]evelop a comprehensive plan on how to address people who repeatedly decline services" and " [p]rovide clear monthly metrics on how many individuals in the Castro have been offered shelter or services and how placements have been made."

More than 50% of those offered shelter refuse it, the email states, taking a figure from the Healthy Streets Operation Center that helps coordinate services for people sheltering in the city's myriad encampments.

Acknowledging that many areas of San Francisco have similar problems, Karraker stressed the unique nature of the Castro, noting that it's one of the few parts of the city that function as a residential, business, and tourism corridor.

"We should be viewed as a priority area," he said.

The email should be viewed as a cry of desperation, said Terry Beswick, executive director of the Golden Gate Business Association, the world's first LGBTQ chamber of commerce. Describing many of those who gather along Castro Street as "unhoused neighbors," Beswick, a gay man who used to oversee the GLBT Historical Society and its small museum on 18th Street, said that underlying the anger and frustration people in the neighborhood feel is "heartbreak and compassion."

"This letter from the Castro Merchants board should, I think, be looked at as a desperate plea for help after years of frustration," Beswick told the B.A.R. in an email. "Especially in the wake of the pandemic crisis, during which neighborhood business owners and their employees have worked so hard just to survive, people are exhausted.

"People are tired of being afraid and depressed by the human tragedies they encounter in front of their places of business," he continued. "We're working so hard to bring back visitors to the Castro and to make it safe and inviting, especially for LGBTQ people, but it's hard to do that when there is so much suffering with no help in sight."

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