In San Francisco’s Mission District, there is a dirt lot that stands out from the many vacant properties scattered throughout the city. In the gated parking lot behind Impact Hub SF, a co-working and event space at 15th and Mission streets, two colorful 5-by-8-foot structures fill the otherwise empty space.
These tiny homes are “transitional shelters,” the start of a program aimed at helping to house the city’s growing homeless population.
For the past four months, Couper Orona, a 44-year-old retired firefighter, has taken refuge in one of the small wooden dwellings as part of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge’s (SFHC) Transitional Sleep and Storage Shelter pilot program. Orona moved into the unit after living in tent encampments and leaving the city’s Navigation Center, which limited her stay to 60 days.
“This is sturdy and strong,” Orona says. “It gives me stability, it gives me security.”
This new program affords her basic housing — a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in and a secure place to keep her possessions — allowing her to work and stay indefinitely while pursuing more permanent housing options.
According to the 2017 Homeless Count and Survey, 3,134 people currently live outdoors in San Francisco. The city spends nearly $30 million responding to encampments. Amy Farah Weiss founded the nonprofit SFHC in response to the city’s growing number of tent encampments.
“There wasn’t enough being done to treat the encampment crisis like a true crisis,” Weiss says. “So we’re addressing those real needs of people needing a place to sleep and store their belongings. People need a place to go to the bathroom and collect trash, today.”
Weiss imagines a future where tiny villages of transitional shelters, like this first one, will be integrated into San Francisco neighborhoods with the most encampments.
According to Weiss, the current pilot program is a community effort involving a neighborhood integration team and a site-specific agreement with Impact Hub SF, which agreed to have transitional homes on their property and offered Orona free use of their entire facility — including a kitchen, shower and restrooms inside the building.
“The neighbors accepted me wholeheartedly,” Orona says. “It felt good to belong to normal society again.”
Lisa Haut lives in a condo overlooking the transitional shelters. She joined SFHC as part of Orona’s neighborhood integration team, providing such things as emotional support and accompaniment to appointments around the city.
Haut was initially involved with a separate initiative to help clean up the neighborhood and remove nearby encampments, but shifted her mission when joining the SFHC.
“It’s one thing to want to enhance the neighborhood. It’s another thing to kick people out that have no place to go,” Haut says. “So I ended up joining Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge to try to provide a sense of community.”
The transitional shelter pilot program is the beginning of a larger model that Weiss envisions scaling up to 50 transitional villages. If the program receives enough political support, she believes the project could house 1,000 people in transitional shelters complete with support services at an estimated cost of $8.7 million. However, the program depends on the participation of residents, local businesses and the city to host the shelters on their land.
“We have a backyard that’s underutilized. We can give the space,” says Impact Hub community experience manager Brandon Harrell Roybal about his arrangement with the SFHC. “It takes the willingness to see someone else’s struggle and want to help them along that journey, given the resources that you have.”
San Francisco has yet to sanction any homeless camp proposals or microshelter projects, but for now, Orona hopes her involvement is a step in solving the city’s homelessness crisis as the program’s first “resident-in-transition.”
“Whatever I do … is going to be nothing but positive and something that is going to be amazing,” Orona says. “All I know is that I am smiling now because I’ll be smiling then.”