San Francisco is considering opening its first long-term, city-funded sober living community in Chinatown, a proposal that comes as scrutiny mounts over a wave of drug deaths that have hit the city in recent years, though some locals aren't happy about its potential opening.
The 150-unit facility would be located at Hotel North Beach on Kearny Street and individuals who have already been sober for a year could move in. Officials said no drug testing will take place at the facility, though residents who repeatedly relapse will be transferred to other housing options.
“We're excited about the possibility of a sober living environment for people who have struggled with addiction and are in a situation where it's hard to maintain sobriety because of their environment,” said Mayor London Breed at a press conference on Thursday. “And when we were in places like the Tenderloin community—and I met with a number of people there—they were looking for other alternatives, and this site presents a possible alternative.”
While sober living communities already exist in San Francisco, they’re aimed at transitioning drug or alcohol users into permanent housing over a period of up to 90 days, said Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which would operate the facility along with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.
The city’s proposal would be the first time it is devoting its own funds to a facility that will house people indefinitely with abstinence in mind and supportive services attached. About 8,000 people live in permanent supportive housing in San Francisco—and drug overdoses are very common inside the facilities—a crisis that some attribute to a loneliness epidemic that the community-centered approach of sober living wants to counter, said officials on Thursday.
An existing law prevents using state funding for housing needs if eligibility is contingent on participation in an on-site program, like sobriety. The city is getting around this by using its own general fund dollars. Cohen said it will cost the city $750,000 to get the program up and running —and about $3.7 million per year to operate.
Chinatown locals say they weren't consulted
But the plans are already facing pushback from some in the Chinatown community.
Edward Siu, chairman of the Chinatown Merchants United Association, attended Thursday’s press conference with a scowl on his face and his arms crossed. He said the city hadn’t consulted with him and others in the community, though he didn’t outright say he was against the sobriety model of housing.
“Why did you not reach out to us before the press conference?” Siu asked the mayor before a scrum of reporters.
Breed said she would be happy to speak with Siu but in a private setting, and admitted making “a mistake” by not consulting him and a handful of other critics who stood around the business leader.
Others, including homeless advocate Sara Shortt from the Treatment on Demand Coalition, are skeptical about what sort of impact it could have on those who relapse inside the proposed facility.
“I absolutely support extending resources through every range of the (housing) spectrum,” Shortt said. “This could be very helpful for our city at this time. I just would want to have some airtight assurances that we’re not going to see a revolving door when (residents) do start to use again. And that this isn’t a counterproductive and poor use of our resources.”
The plan still needs the approval of the Homelessness Oversight Commission, which will meet on March 7.
Those recovering from drugs say the facility could do wonders for those seeking a better life.
Myron Grant, a member of the drug treatment program Positive Directions who was formerly homeless, said he was using prescription pills and overdosed about a year ago. Standing outside the Chinatown hotel, Grant said staying away from drugs—and having a group of people around him who support his goal—has been crucial.
“It’s reestablished my relationship with my family,” said Grant, 35. “It’s a great support system.”