December 31, 2020 By Erica Sandberg
With the Covid-19 shutdown dragging on for months, and business owners and employees struggling to stay afloat, San Francisco’s restaurants, cafés, bars, and fitness centers were permitted to create patios, or “parklets,” so that they could operate outdoors. This option offered a critical lifeline. Running the gamut from modest to elaborate, the parklets soon became ubiquitous. They stretched by the hundreds along sidewalks and into streets and alleyways in every district in the city. Small-business owners and their staffs finally had some revenue coming in, and their communities rejoiced in any semblance of normal life returning.
Then, on December 6, the doors were abruptly shut on outdoor dining and health clubs. Business owners were forced to abandon the parklets that they had painstakingly designed and constructed. Many had decorated them beautifully for the holidays, counting on operating until Christmas. Since San Francisco hospitals were not overrun with Covid patients, California had given restaurants and gyms at least a few weeks to continue serving the public. Nonetheless, San Francisco mayor London Breed and public-health director Grant Colfax preemptively closed the parklets with a Stay at Home order. Almost overnight, activity in the now-abandoned spaces changed dramatically.
“My parklets are now being used as bathrooms,” says Brian Cassanego, owner of The Wine Jar and Noir Lounge. “Some guy was camping in one. I find empty cans of beer, needles. The parklets have become homeless shelters and drug dens. Even when we deep clean, which will cost us more money, who will want to sit in them when we are allowed to come back?”
Cassanego is asking neighbors to keep watch over his parklets when he can’t be there. He’s hesitant to board them up completely, explaining that it would make the city look awful. “It’s heartbreaking,” he says. “It’s hard to fight back, to get up and plan for another day. Pre-pandemic, I got threatened with $1,000 fines if I didn’t clean up homeless messes. They’re beating restaurants down.”
The city has approved $5,000 grants to reimburse small-business owners who invested in parklets, but the funds are not for everyone—they appear to “prioritize minority-owned businesses and businesses that advance the City’s equity goals.” Even if Cassanego turns out to be eligible, the cash will fall short. Before the cold weather started, he spent $2,000 on heaters and had a roof constructed to fit over the tables—for another $5,000. All told, the parklets set him back upward of $15,000. With his business closed, Cassanego’s bills and debts are piling up.
Empty parklets across the city are becoming magnets for transient people. A large percentage of those experiencing homelessness suffer from substance-abuse disorders or psychological illnesses. Rory Cox, CEO of Yubalance Fitness and founder of San Francisco Small Business Alliance, says that frightening incidents are occurring. For example, when one business owner asked a person not behaving rationally to leave the parklet, the person sprayed him in the face with pepper spray; the business owner spent five hours in the emergency room. Used syringes are frequently found inside the structures. Vandalism too, is a burgeoning problem, so when the businesses are permitted to reopen, expensive repairs will be necessary.
Elected officials and city departments continue to laud “shelter in place” hotels as a solution to homelessness. Rooms (with meals and services) cost the city $7,500 to $8,000 per month, per person, even as San Francisco descends deeper into an alarming budget deficit. Sanctioned encampment sites don’t work well, to put it kindly, but that’s not stopping supervisors from advocating that more be established.
Meantime, seven navigation centers — homeless shelters with wraparound services that the city opened with great fanfare — sit empty. These buildings, the latest of which cost the city $12.5 million, can be adapted to meet COVID restrictions, but they remain shuttered. Modular housing that could be constructed quickly and inexpensively has been rejected, mostly because labor unions oppose it.
Despite promises, legislation, and great expense, inept city leaders can’t seem to help the most destitute get off the streets. Instead, under an ongoing lockdown, it is the parklets, bereft of workers and customers, that act as de facto homes for this population. Certainly, any place that will help shield a body from wind, cold, and rain is preferable to being exposed to the elements. Compared to nothing, even a parklet with walls and an overhang can be an attractive alternative. San Francisco’s small-business owners could be forgiven for feeling hoodwinked: shelling out their own money to keep their businesses going, they have unwittingly created homeless accommodation apparently more desirable than anything the city offers.
Erica Sandberg is a widely published consumer-finance reporter based in San Francisco and the author of Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families. As a community advocate, she focuses on homelessness and crime and safety issues.
This article was originally published by City Journal Online.