‘Box City' for homeless springs up in San Francisco; voters face issue on ballot

First it was a tent city in San Francisco, now there's a so-called “Box City”, which has sprung up in the last few months, and voters will decide on a few ballot initiatives on how to deal with the issue of homelessness next week.

Box City, a cluster of nearly two dozen plywood and particle board temporary structures, first sprang up a few months ago along Caltrain tracks on the edge of Mission Bay.

R.J. has lived here two months. He used to live in an Single Room Occupancy (SRO), but got behind on the rent and wound up on the streets and eventually found Box City.

“We look after our community, if anybody's got a problem then we handle it as a community,” said R.J.

Unlike previous temporary encampments, Box City has amenities, including a toilet. And unlike a tent, residents here can lock their door to protect themselves and their belongings. R.J. says that’s an important first step toward getting permanent housing.

“So now we don't have to worry, ‘Are we going to come home and not have clothes?’ Is my paperwork still there?’ Everything else,” said R.J.

Supervisor Mark Farrell authored Proposition Q, designed to specifically prohibit tents on the sidewalks as long as the city gives campers 24-hours advance notice, and would offer shelter for a night and storage for their belongings for 90 days. Some see it as being anti-homeless and aimed at stopping ad-hoc communities like Box City.

However, San Francisco already has a law that bans camping on sidewalks. 

“I firmly believe these are some of the most dangerous living conditions we've ever seen in the city of San Francisco,” says Supervisor Farrell .

Farrell says he’d rather see the residents in Box City be put on a track for permanent housing.

“So with 500 tent encampments in existence, maybe more with these box cities, we're going to have the capacity to service these individuals and get them off the streets,” says Farrell.

Homeless advocate, activist with the St. Francis Homelessness Challenge and one-time mayoral candidate, Amy Farah Weiss has worked closely with the residents of Box City and says Farrell’s measure doesn’t address the needs of the homeless.

She says it’s time for San Francisco to consider Box City as a first step toward getting the homeless into homes.

“It's a radically new way work with un-housed residents to organize and not demonize them, as Farrell's Prop. Q has done. It's not going to reduce any crime, any rapes, and safety issues, Prop Q,” says Weiss.

Voters will get their say over the fate of temporary communities in next week’s election on Tuesday. 

In addition, Proposition J (which is linked to a transportation initiative) seeks to create a Homeless Housing and Services fund that would provide services like housing for the homeless through Navigation Centers and other programs to prevent homelessness. The proposition seeks $50 million over the course of 24 years with annual adjustments.