San Francisco commission OKs homeless shelter near tourist area

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SAN FRANCISCO — Port commissioners Tuesday night unanimously approved a proposal to lease land for a 200-bed temporary homeless shelter in the popular Embarcadero tourist area as the city struggles with a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Supporters cheered as the commissioners voted unanimously to lease a port-owned parking lot to the city for two years to create the SAFE Navigation Center. There would be an option for a two-year extension under certain conditions.

Mayor London Breed proposed the shelter as part of her plan to build 1,000 new shelter beds by 2020. Construction could begin in June, with the shelter gradually expanding after initially holding up to 130 people.

In a statement, Breed called the shelter "an important part of our plan to help our unsheltered residents get off the streets."

San Francisco opened its first navigation center in 2015 and currently operates six throughout the city. Unlike traditional shelters, the centers allow people to bring pets and don't kick them out in the morning.

But opponents contend that a shelter for the homeless would be a crime and health risk in the waterfront area, which is a big draw for tourists and is densely populated, with high-priced condos as well as apartments housing thousands of families.

A neighborhood group, Safe Embarcadero, called the vote illegal and said it is considering legal action.

Public testimony at the commission meeting was heated.

Resident Janet Lawson, who is opposed to the shelter, said that the music festival Woodstock was better organized than the shelter layout. And she criticized Breed for thinking about the next election instead of listening to concerned residents.

"By no means does anyone believe this is the only spot for this place," Lawson said, adding that the city's billionaire tech leaders should offer space. "Why not ask Mark Zuckerberg to give up one of his floors?"

But Jennifer Friedenbach of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness said that signs in the room rejecting the shelter are symbolic of "unbridled entitlement."

"Commissioners, I know this is uncomfortable for you, but stand up to the hate," she said. "Class bias has turned into class hate."

Homeless services worker Marnie Regan said she was taken aback by the vitriol in the room and urged opponents to talk to people who are homeless.

"These are humans who need to be housed," she said. "This is about people dying, not about your goddamn property values."

There are at least 1,000 people on a waiting list for shelter beds, said Jeff Kositsky, director of the city's Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing. He said the department has received hundreds of phone calls and emails on the subject.

"Our unhoused neighbors are dying outside and we have to do everything in our power to bring them indoors and ultimately to support them to end their homelessness," Kositsky said in a statement after the vote.

More than 4,000 people sleep unsheltered each night in a city of about 885,000.

San Francisco struggles with income and housing inequity, with homes among the most expensive in the country. A family of four earning $117,400 a year is considered low-income in San Francisco, where the median sale price of a two-bedroom is $1.3 million.

San Francisco companies Pinterest and Lyft recently went public, and Uber and Slack are coming soon, driving fears that newly minted millionaires will snap up the few family homes left for under $2 million.

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