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Board committee approves Lower Nob Hill shelter as residents, merchants fret about impact

A SRO building in the Tenderloin

The Budget and Finance Committee voted unanimously in favor of turning an unused youth hostel at 711 Post St. into an emergency homeless shelter on Wednesday, assuring that the measure will be heard by the full Board of Supervisors next week. 

The budget committee initially voted in early January to postpone a decision on the $18.7 million, three–year contract for the shelter, declaring that a more intensive community outreach process was needed. After a month of public hearings, during which community members raised concerns about a lack of mental health professionals at the site and a sense of rising crime in the neighborhood, the city is preparing to move ahead and has also reached a tentative agreement to purchase the building rather than lease it. 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district the building falls under, pushed during Wednesday’s meeting for another week to finalize negotiations between residents and the city. In response to concerns from community members over the last month, the city  agreed to extend the support services set to be provided by contractor Urban Alchemy to 24 hours a day. 

Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that runs several safe sleeping sites and is assisting in running the new Tenderloin linkage center, has a three-year agreement to run the site, with $7.6 million allocated for staffing. 

“The city got off to a bad foot with the niehgborhood,” Peskin said. “I want to thank [city officials] for their willingness to be at the table to hear these folks out. That has manifested in some real changes.”

Urban Alchemy would be managing intake coordination, neighborhood security, as well as care services—which critics argue is an unfamiliar role for the organization. 

Susan Walsh, a spokesperson for the Lower Nob Hill Alliance, a group formed in opposition to the shelter, told The Standard ahead of Wednesday’s meeting that residents from the neighborhood are worried about Urban Alchemy’s lack of experience.

“We got the answers, but their answers were problematic and troubling for us,” Walsh said on Tuesday. “The unhoused are extremely traumatized and they need that extra step of support, which is not going to happen in this particular shelter.”

Supervisor Matt Haney noted that Urban Alchemy was new to providing some key services but added: “I’m not aware if we have a model like that … [But] I think there’s a lot of advantage because Urban Alchemy is uniquely positioned to do all of those things.” 

Walsh and her fellow organizers lobbied the city to take a more deliberate approach to the site, asserting that the experimental staffing model should be given a six month trial period. The neighborhood borders Union Square, where many businesses have been devastated by an absence of tourists and office workers as well as problems with crime and homelessness. In 2020, the city used federal funds from Project HomeKey to purchase the Granada, the Post and the Diva Hotels, all of which sit just blocks away from the proposed shelter. 

But proponents of the shelter say that there’s a desperate need for more shelter beds, particularly those that give guests their own room. Space at city shelters that provide at least some privacy is often in the single digits, and unhoused residents face long waitlists to gain entry to supportive housing.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the coalition on homelessness, said that she toured the facility and is excited about its prospects. 

“We have a situation where folks are deteriorating out on the streets they’re really desperate for some place to stay,” Friedenbach said. “This gives us the opportunity to have semi-private and private rooms for folks and we would be able to shelter couples for the first time.”

If passed by the full board of supervisors next week, the site would have the capacity to house 250 people across 125 units that range from single to quad occupancy.

David Sjostedt can be reached at