While thousands of people remain unsheltered in San Francisco amid the coronavirus pandemic, a controversial proposal to allow the homeless to pitch tents in the city's parks has sparked debate among lawmakers and residents in a city famous for its liberal politics.

Frustrated business owners and residents alike, already under enormous stress from the economic shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, have found their patience tested as tents spring up in doorways and human waste becomes an ever-present concern in parts of the city.

Facing legal action from some residents, San Francisco recently opened its first "Safe Sleeping Site" in the shadow of City Hall, providing a supervised and physically distanced area where unsheltered residents can legally camp in tents. A second designated site has also been selected and is expected to open soon.

With the added dangers of a virus spreading unchecked through the city's shelters, officials have been forced to reduce capacity out of a need to create physical distancing, leaving many with nowhere else to go but on the street. And while the city has also secured more than 2,000 hotel rooms to house the unsheltered, the effort to craft a more long-term solution has opened a new battle among those tasked with solving the problem.

"It's already been really, really hard. This has been our reality for many years and this is just making everything more challenging," said Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy group.

City's residents frustrated

Some of the city's residents, however, are increasingly disturbed by what they're seeing on the streets.

"It's unsafe. It's unsanitary. Whatever is going on here, it's inhumane," said Mike Abuyaghi owner of an auto shop in the city's Tenderloin district. "It's like, you know, you come to work and you want to focus on what you're here for. Then you have all the craziness going on."

An emergency ordinance proposed earlier this month that would require the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department to submit a list of city properties to potentially host sanctioned homeless tent encampments, was met with fervent opposition.

Opening up the city's parks, including parking lots and other vacant space, for temporary shelter would help address the urgent need for space, said city Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer.

The parks department oversees 11% of city-owned land, according to Fewer, who noted that other cities across the West, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Eugene, Oregon, have also adopted the concept of safe sleeping sites.

'Safe sleeping villages' met with opposition

Many San Francisco residents, however, submitted letters of opposition, and the proposal was met with pushback by Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who wrote a letter to Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee on May 4 arguing that there are many other suitable alternatives for housing the burgeoning homeless population.

"San Francisco has numerous options to deal with the critical shortage of safe shelter: continuing the Mayor's hotel program, enforcing social distancing and healthy conduct in group housing and shelters, and expanding the RV programs and temporary shelters," Feinstein said.

"This could include tents on unused parking lots and closed schoolyards, as well as public facilities such as the Cow Palace and Port property. These locations are available, have utilities, and can be more easily restored to original uses than can park lands."

But the mayor's office pushed back on Feinstein's idea, citing concerns about the virus spreading through the city's unsheltered population.

"Due to Covid-19, many of the ways that the City normally helps people out of homelessness have had to be severely scaled back. Our shelter capacity has had to be reduced by 76% to allow for physically distancing, and as a result we are seeing an increase in tents on the street," said Andy Lynch, a spokesman for Mayor London Breed.

"We've announced two safe sleeping villages as an interim way to provide safety, sanitation, and services to people in these encampments and we're continuing to look for additional sites that could work. This does not require legislation from the Board of Supervisors."

Fewer's proposal was ultimately tabled this week after the city parks department indicated it would work with real estate officials to provide a list of potential encampment sites -- which could extend beyond the borders of the city's parks — by June 2.

"It is time San Francisco looked for a long-term solution to this problem," Fewer said.

Cutler, from the homelessness coalition, agreed.

"What I am seeing that's different are more tents, and it's what the city calls 'visible homelessness,' and visible homelessness is not the issue," she said. "The issue is that people don't have access to alternatives. There are no alternatives."

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spellings of the names of Kelley Cutler, with the Coalition of Homelessness, and Mike Abuyaghi, a shop owner.

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