San Francisco’s Department of (Perpetual) Homelessness and (Un) Supportive Housing

Democracy is Not in Action 

Fascism is defined as “dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy.” Pretty bad stuff. Yet based on this description, San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) checks those boxes. Here’s how and why. 

HSH is attempting to railroad the purchase of four hotels to be used as “permanent supportive housing” (PSH) for homeless people, the majority of whom suffer from addiction and psychiatric issues. The sites are the Mission Inn, Eula Hotel, The Panoramic, and the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel. 

On the surface, PSH sounds ethical and practical but this strategy has been tried and the reviews are abysmal. Rather than provide necessary recovery and mental health facilities with guaranteed security and qualified professionals that are always on the premises, case managers drop in and attend to as many as 60 clients each. The “24/7 onsite staffing”? A front desk attendant. 

Consequently, the converted hotels have largely turned into drug dens. People have overdosed and died in them. A meth lab was set up and exploded. Crime and chaos erupts outside, hurting once calm, stable neighborhoods as well as those that are up and coming and that are already troubled.

The Kimpton Buchanan Hotel sale, especially, has elicited outrage. It is located in historic Japantown. Currently over 6,000 people have signed the petition opposing the project. 

And then there’s the Panoramic, in the South of Market neighborhood. The department only sent meeting announcement notices to residents who live within 200 feet of the building, though it’s impact is far-reaching. Homeowners who rent their units did not receive notices at all. 

The meeting was a sham. Those who spoke first were mainly proposal advocates and were given two minutes to speak while neighbors who objected came after and were given one minute. Not only was district supervisor Matt Haney a no-show, his representative called in to support the project from a New York City bar as he watched the U.S. Open.

The city has already taken the Panoramic over and turned it into a temporary Covid shelter-in-place residence. Meeting participants described gun activity and being threatened, a dead body on the street, being punched. “I don’t feel safe, day and night,” said a near-by resident. There is little to no police response when they dial 911 for help. One woman calls an average of five times a day for violent offenses.

A lowlight of the meeting was Jennifer Friedenbach’s appearance. As the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, she advanced Proposition C, which made funds available for such projects. Friedenbach is super excited by the sale. Suspicious? You should be.

Distraught comments such as “This is being rammed down our throats” and “Shame on you. All of you” “I never would have invested in a home or business here had I known,” were infuriating and heartbreaking. This hasn’t stopped HSH from trying to make the unilateral decision to move forward. 

Dictatorial power - check

Forcible suppression of opposition - check

Strong regimentation of society and of the economy - check and check

Because there is so much community objection, I requested details about the plan from HSH. Denny Machuca-Grebe, the department’s public information officer, sidelined me again and again. Finally, with pressure to reply, he sent me the vaguest of responses. 

Below is the entire QA. I am ES, and Denny Machuca-Grebe is DMG. My follow-up responses are capitalized. (I don’t normally make demands, but thought it appropriate to speak the language of activists who do).  

ES: Services provided: Who will be conducting the services? How will success be measured?

DMG: HSH will partner with an experienced nonprofit organization that has expertise in managing supportive housing and working with people exiting homelessness. Selecting the operator and service provider will be conducted through a public process, as is customary for these projects.

ES: HSH DOES NOT GET TO DICTATE WHAT IS CUSTOMARY AND THEREFORE ACCEPTED. THE PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW WHICH ORGANIZATION YOU HAVE IN MIND AND WHAT THEIR SUCCESS RATE IS BEFORE CONTRACTING WITH THEM. WE DEMAND THE RIGHT TO CONSENT OR REJECT. 

DMG: All contracts have a performance monitoring component to ensure providers are meeting outcomes/goals.

ES: THERE ARE ZERO DETAILS ABOUT THIS “PERFORMANCE MONITORING SYSTEM.” WE DEMAND DETAILS. 

ES: Precisely what do these services entail?  How often people would receive services? What are the desired results?

DMG: The services provided at PSH sites are generally focused on community building, housing stabilization, and homelessness prevention. However, services are unique to each building, as well as based on the needs and goals of each tenant. 

ES: THIS EXPLAINS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. WE DEMAND DETAILS. 

DMG: Each tenant’s service plan is customized to meet their unique needs and goals.  For example, the plan can be focused on accessing health care and addressing chronic medical needs or could be focused on job training and employment.  

ES: WE DEMAND EVIDENCE THAT THERE IS EMPLOYMENT TRAINING AND THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY GET JOBS AFTER THIS “SERVICE” PLAN. 

DMG: For tenants suffering from substance use disorder, access to treatment can be the focus of their service plan. 

ES: NO DESCRIPTION OF ADDICTION TREATMENT. THIS IS MEANINGLESS. WE DEMAND A DETAILED DESCRIPTION. 

DMG: Permanent supportive housing includes 24/7 onsite staffing.

ES: THERE IS NO DESCRIPTION OF WHAT THE STAFFING IS AND WHAT IT IS FOR. SECURITY? OVERDOSE? ROOM SERVICE? WE DEMAND DETAILS. 

ES: Substance use assistance: What harm reduction services and products would they receive? How would the HR services/products be disseminated (in lobby? in room? What detox and rehabilitation assistance would you offer? Would you offer 12-step meetings and other ongoing support for sobriety maintenance? 

DMG: Harm reduction services would be administered by the non-profit provider partner.

ES: DID NOT ANSWER THE QUESTIONS ABOUT HARM REDUCTION SERVICES AND PRODUCTS. WE DEMAND DETAILS, INCLUDING ALL MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS. THIS ABSOLUTELY IGNORES THE QUESTIONS ABOUT DETOX, REHABILITATION, SOBER LIVING ASSISTANCE, AND 12-STEP MEETINGS. WE DEMAND AN ANSWER. 

ES: What is the estimated per person cost? 

DMG: This information is not yet publicly available as the City is still in negotiations with the property owner.

ES: THIS INFORMATION NEEDS TO BE PUBLICLY SHARED BEFORE ANY DECISION IS MADE. WE DEMAND THE PRICE. 

ES: Community protection. How would you guarantee that the area outside the hotel be free of:

  • drug dealing

  • vagrancy

  • crime

DMG: The project will have a Good Neighbor Policy. The provider shall maintain a good relationship with the neighborhood, including:  

  • Collaboration with neighbors and relevant city agencies to ensure that neighborhood concerns about the facility are heard and addressed;    

  • That Grantee management staff is available to respond to neighbors within three business days, if reasonable; and

  • Having a representative of the Grantee attend all appropriate neighborhood meetings.

ES: THE HOTELS THAT HAVE BEEN CONVERTED INTO HOMELESS HOUSING HAVE BEEN DESTROYED, INSIDE AND OUT. THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITY HAS EXPERIENCED A MARKED INCREASE IN CRIME, VAGRANCY, DRUG USE, NOISE, TRASH, DANGER. 

THIS “GOOD NEIGHBOR” POLICY DOES NOT WORK. IT HASN’T WORKED BEFORE. IT DOESN’T WORK NOW. IT WON’T WORK IN THE FUTURE. 

“MANAGEMENT WILL RESPOND TO NEIGHBORS WITHIN 3 BUSINESS DAYS.” THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. 

The level of trust San Franciscans have in city departments and elected officials is at a nadir, as is evidenced by a flurry of recalls, from the district attorney to the school board. Much of the discontent is due to community desires not being considered in crucial decisions. Implementing plans without the will or agreement of the people is a totalitarian act. It’s how revolutions are born.