Clients of Mother Brown's Dining Room hang out in front of the soup kitchen. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Clients of Mother Brown’s Dining Room, including Larry Williams on the far right, hang out in front of the soup kitchen. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Mother Brown’s Dining Room sits on a quiet corner in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, on the southeastern edge of the city. In one direction, industrial warehouses and auto repair shops dominate the view. In the other is a residential neighborhood. The soup kitchen began as a mobile feeding center 20 years ago, but now has a permanent site at 2111 Jennings Street, where more than 7,000 people get hot breakfasts and dinners each month.

Now, San Francisco is proposing building a 100-bed homeless shelter in a warehouse next to Mother Brown’s. The Planning Commission is considering the proposal because it requires a special use permit to convert the industrial warehouse into a shelter. They will vote in the coming weeks.

If approved, homeless people in the area would have a bed for 90 days before rotating out. Ultimately the goal is to get homeless people into supportive housing, but sometimes it can take people a little while to adjust to living indoors after a long time on the street. A bed is a good first step. People staying at the proposed shelter would also have access to meals and services like cheap laundry and employment counseling next door at Mother Brown’s.

“We want to bring the services to where the individuals are, rather than forcing long-term Bayview residents who may be homeless to come to the central city for services,” said Trent Rhorer, executive director of the city’s Human Services Agency. His staff first applied for grant money to build the shelter in 2011 and has been working ever since to win over community support.

It’s been a tough sell. A vocal group of residents say that putting a homeless shelter in the Bayview follows a pattern of the city pushing problems from the center of the city out to its farther-flung neighborhoods. They say if Bayview was a wealthier neighborhood the city wouldn’t be trying to get away with something like this.

“Bayview has too often been a dumping ground for the city,” said Shane Mayer, who co-chairs the neighborhood group Bayview Residents Improving Their Environment (BRITE). “Whether to be putting a waste facility out here, an electric plant out here, services for people who’ve been through the criminal justice system and now another homeless shelter.”

Mayer’s group is trying hard to change the image of Bayview, which has long been associated with crime and poverty. They hold workdays to clean up public parks and are trying to lure new businesses to the area.

“When we bring in something like a homeless shelter that doesn’t necessarily help us in that cause,” Mayer said. “It hurts it.”

District 10’s Supervisor, Malia Cohen, has thrown her support behind the opposition. She says the city didn’t get enough community input before siting the shelter. That’s a complaint of many residents as well. They say they knew nothing about the proposed shelter until it was up for a vote before the Board of Supervisors. Trent Rhorer admits that the city applied for the initial grant to support the shelter quickly because of a late deadline, but says the city has held several community meetings and public hearings since then. He also says he has personally communicated with many of those expressing concerns.

“Unfortunately, the byproduct of all this is that we’re seeing really fierce, what I would call, nimbyism [Not In My Back Yard],” Rhorer said. “Folks simply don’t want a homeless shelter near where their places of business are. Well, the reality is there are homeless individuals in the Bayview and they are currently being served, I would argue, inadequately with a resource center and a temporary shelter.”

Other members of the Bayview community view BRITE’s position on the homeless shelter as aggressive.

“They are just very mean people, who don’t really have a plan, but just don’t want to help other people get one up,” said Gwendolyn Westbrook, CEO of the United Council for Human Services, the nonprofit that runs Mother Brown’s Dining Room. “And that’s all it really boils down to.”

Volunteers serve breakfast to those in need at Mother Brown's Dining Room. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Volunteers serve breakfast to those in need at Mother Brown’s Dining Room. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Many, but not all, of the homeless people that Westbrook serves each day grew up in the Bayview. The recent economic downturn hit this part of the city hard, and many people lost their homes. Westbrook and other members of the African-American community in the neighborhood see the homeless shelter as one of the last ways to fight gentrification.

“We’re natives of this neighborhood,” said Marvin Robinson, owner of the Dollar and More on 3rd Street. “I’m not opposed to these beds because a lot of the people who lived in this neighborhood cannot stay in this neighborhood.”

As a Bayview business owner, Robinson wants to see a more vibrant neighborhood, just as much as BRITE. He remembers when 3rd Street was a bustling commercial corridor with theaters, shops and restaurants. He’d like to see it bustle that way again, but he wants other long-term residents of Bayview who he grew up with to be part of that revitalization. He fears that without serious efforts by the city to provide housing to extremely low-income people, the historic African-American community in Bayview will be completely pushed out.

San Francisco’s black population was at its peak in the 1970s, but has been slowly dwindling since the Hunter’s Point shipyard closed. In 1990, African-Americans made up 10.5 percent of San Francisco’s population. Twenty years later the census puts that number below 6 percent today. The African-American population in the Bayview over the same time frame was cut in half and is now around 32.2 percent. Asians now hold a slight majority in the district with 32.6 percent of the population.

“I know all these neighbors around here,” said Larry Williams, a client at Mother Brown’s Dining Room who has lived in the Bayview since 1967. “All the newer neighbors around here, they came up in here acting like they’re so community-minded, trying to push us out because they don’t want no shelters. But if you ain’t never been homeless, you ain’t got no business even speakin’ on this.”

Some of the homeless who visit Mother Brown’s for services sleep sitting upright in chairs in a room above the dining room. They complain of poor sleep and swollen ankles from being unable to recline. Bayview does have another homeless shelter run by Providence Baptist Church, but people can only come in after 10 p.m. and have to leave at 7 a.m. They sleep on mats on the ground and have to take their belongings with them during the day.

At last count, there were nearly 2,000 homeless people in District 10, where Bayview is the largest neighborhood. They sleep on the street and in cars, in lieu of a permanent home. That’s the second-largest number concentration of homeless in the city, after the Tenderloin.

Some of the homeless aren’t respectful of neighbor’s property when they pass by on their way to Mother Brown’s.

“Ninety-five percent of the people who come to eat there are fantastic; they’re quiet, they’re respectful, they’re just neighbors, they’re just folks,” said Amy Clark, whose house sits kitty-corner to Mother Brown’s. “And then there’s some people who aren’t as good neighbors. There’s a lot of noise. There’s domestic violence. There’s screaming. There’s being woken up late at night and early in the morning. There’s people urinating and defecating on our property. There’s extra trash. I’ve had to kick drunk people off of my step. I’ve had to clean vomit off of my step.”

Those irritations are starting to add up and Clark wants assurances from the city that it will deal with these issues before she can trust it to manage an even larger facility for the homeless.

“I’m concerned that the city is being irresponsible by not communicating with the neighbors and deciding to expand it into a full shelter without really understanding that there are some problems that need to be solved first,” Clark said.

The city plans to set up a citizen’s advisory committee to facilitate communication about issues like the ones Clark raises. Rhorer is hopeful that if the homeless have a shelter to go to during the day, with bathrooms and storage, some of these problems will subside.

Larry Williams agrees that a shelter could help some people turn their lives around. “If you had a bed, a place to lay down at night, where you could think at night, a place to map your day out for tomorrow so you can get started. That’s what we need around here,” he said.

Listen to the radio version of this story:

  • https://www.facebook.com/ChoqolateChiq Qiana (key-yah-nah)

    When I go home I arrive to have people urinating, smoking and sitting in front of my home… This started when the shelter/feeding program was established. I’m all for helping but what about the neighbors who lived in the neighborhood for over 35 years? It’s unfair.

  • Jon

    The idea that the homeless need to be housed in a shelter before supportive housing has been thoroughly discredited. The coalition on homelessness has spent the last decade fighting for supportive housing instead of shelters — this proposal is a big step backwards for the homeless of SF.
    Worse, it sounds like the plan is to house the Black homeless in a warehouse in Bayview and the White homeless in supportive housing in other neighborhoods. Absolutely discriminatory.

  • ShaneMayer

    It is certainly a tough task to present a balanced story when it involves such a vulnerable group, like San Francisco’s homeless population. Still, our group of Bayview neighbors – representing over 2,000 residents who have signed our petition to stop the proposed homeless shelter takes great issue with the continuing coverage from KQED on this subject.

    In a recent post entitled Bayview Residents Weigh Adding a New Homeless Shelter the reporter found it fitting to feature just one voice in opposition to the shelter and four in favor of it. In the radio piece on the same issue which aired during April 17th’s morning news, again very few of the 2,000 voices against this shelter were heard.

    Even more glaring than the absence of voices opposing this shelter is the absence of our concerns. We hope in future coverage of this issue KQED will consider addressing these concerns:

    1. The proposed location is in an area zoned for industry. That’s exactly what you’ll find there: chemical companies, warehouses with dangerous equipment and absolutely no services nearby. There is a reason this area is not zoned for residential living and we do not believe it’s suitable for any population, especially the vulnerable homeless.

    2. This area is a toxic dump. The site itself has a fuel tank – from the days of leaded gasoline – buried below ground. The City has offered no indication of how it plans to study and address these environmental concerns. Bayview already has the highest rates of cancer and heart disease because residences for the poor were placed on top of toxic land. Bayview residents have fought for decades to correct this; we don’t want to repeat history.

    3. We have a homeless shelter that isn’t fully utilized. As we mentioned to KQED reporters several times, Bayview offers more beds for homeless than any other district! In fact, Providence Shelter is just a mile from the proposed location and is currently only at 70-80% capacity.

    4. There isn’t sufficient evidence that we need another shelter. The City has incomplete records on the most recent homeless count, which purported a 300% increase in homeless in District 10. This stands in clear contrast to the fact that Providence shelter is not fully utilized. We fear that the City plans to migrate homeless from rapidly gentrifying areas, like the Mid-Market “twitter corridor” to Bayview, further concentrating poverty in our neighborhood. We have consulted with experts in the field of epidemiology, planning, and regional economics; their research proves that concentration of poverty leads to long-term negative effects on resident health and economic prospects, especially in African American neighborhoods. These adverse outcomes are manifest in Bayview, which has the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, diabetes, heart disease and incarceration. What we don’t want to see is the perpetuation of this cycle of poverty by adding to the stressors that already exist here.

    5. The City never reached out to the neighborhood before moving forward with this ill conceived plan. For this reason alone Supervisor Cohen has opposed the shelter. Can you imagine a shelter being slipped into Pacific Heights or Nob Hill without consulting neighbors and resident stakeholders?

    While it’s easy to ignore these facts in favor of a narrative that seems to support a vulnerable population, by doing so we will only be putting our homeless residents in danger. The City is eager to open a shelter and continue to push this problem to the furthest corner of the City, but this isn’t good for the homeless and it certainly isn’t good for Bayview.

  • Duque

    Over the past decade, bad projects like this have pushed the Black middle class out of Bayview and into cities like Oakland and Fremont. The result has been a 50% drop in SFs Black population as families have fled for areas with lower crime and better schools. We dont need more of this.

    • BayviewRez

      Thanks, Duque, for not accepting the media’s easy portrayal of disenfranchised African Americans being pushed out of the neighborhood because of rising rents. African Americans in Bayview own most of their homes, but the more the City dumps on our neighborhood, the more those same residents want to sell those homes for cleaner neighborhoods with better schools. Why doesn’t KQED understand that? Because they spend most of their time talking to easy targets, like the homeless who come in from the Tenderloin to eat at Mother Brown’s. I wonder if KQED even knows that half of the MB clients travel from the Tenderloin for the food; they’re not even from Bayview.

  • James Armand Chionsini Jr.

    I am a homeowner with two kids who lives a couple of blocks away and I fully support the shelter.

  • readhead

    I am glad to see some public discussion of the proposed Bayview
    homeless shelter — until some of my neighbors got wind of this
    ill-conceived plan, the city was having a private conversation with just
    a few individuals. Even now, it is difficult to get a consistent
    account of what the city is planning to do. Perhaps this is because
    there is no clear plan? I don’t know. But it’s interesting to read the
    comments of city officials (including Mr. Rhorer) who claim they are
    listening and responding to neighborhood concerns and then go on to
    characterize the residents who have expressed these concerns as
    “NIMBYs.”

    That said, I found
    this piece frustratingly unbalanced and uninformative about the issues
    surrounding the shelter. I don’t want to repeat the points made by other

    commenters. But I do want to mention that Bayview residents have
    suggested alternative sites for this shelter that would not disrupt the
    industrial zoning of the Jennings St area and (relatedly) would not pose
    health and safety risks to people housed in the shelter. Some of my
    neighbors have even taken city officials to see alternate locations
    nearby. But the city seems too committed to the Jennings site to
    consider anything else.

    It is unfortunate that, in its zeal to build this shelter, the city is
    sowing division in the neighborhood. I don’t think anybody is “against”
    the homeless. I think everyone is in favor of a well-thought-out
    citywide plan to help people get off the streets and out of poverty.
    Because Bayview residents have not been included in the development of
    this
    shelter plan, our options seem to boil down to either acquiescing to
    or opposing the proposal. It could have been a very different story.

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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