San Francisco business owners’ demands condemned by LGBTQ advocates

Business owners in the Castro are trying to take matters into their own hands when it comes to the San Francisco neighborhood’s homeless population.

The Castro Merchants Association, which represents about 125 businesses in the area, sent a letter to city officials on Aug. 8 outlining three requests: 35 shelter beds designated for “mentally ill and substance-abusing individuals who have resided in the Castro. A request for monthly metrics on services offered or provided to homeless people in the neighborhood, and a plan for what to do after people refuse services.

Dave Karraker, co-president of the Castro Merchants Association, told SFGATE that businesses in the association will potentially stop paying taxes if the three requirements are not met.

“Whatever they’re doing isn’t working. It’s not leading to a noticeable change in conditions in the Castro as it relates to drug addicts and the mentally ill,” said Karraker, who also owns MX3 Fitness, a gym with two locations in the area.

Karraker said businesses in the Castro have been hit particularly hard since the pandemic began, and he thinks the neighborhood’s homeless population — especially those struggling with addiction and mental illness — is exacerbating the problem.

“We’re just seeing constant vandalism, constant drug use in public, people lost on the sidewalk, people with psychotic breakdowns, and that’s not something a small business owner should have to deal with,” Karraker said.

He noted that the letter’s request for 35 shelter beds comes from a record kept by District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s office of “people who consistently cause problems” in the neighborhood: “That list is usually 20 to 25 people. So that we knew if we had 35 beds, we would be able to cover those people,” Karraker said.

In a response sent to the business association by the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, officials said it is not city policy to allocate shelter beds to people from a particular neighborhood. The response also noted that it would be a violation of privacy laws to share information about the case status of specific people with the public.

“However, we greatly appreciate hearing from community members about what they are seeing on the streets and will continue to work with the Castro community to improve conditions for everyone in the Castro,” the response read.

Karraker said he believes the city’s response to the homelessness crisis tends to focus on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, which he believes have “pushed people to the Castro.”

But some homeless people from neighborhoods like the Tenderloin say they come to the Castro because they feel safer there as LGBTQ+ people, KTVU reported.

This is not a recent phenomenon: in 2009, the Journal of LGBT Youth published a study by Jen Reck, an associate professor of sociology and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, called “Nobody Likes LGBT Children on the way – also in Kastro”.

The study focuses on homeless gay and transgender youth of color in San Francisco, specifically a group of teenagers who used the Castro as a place to seek safety and community.

“The Castro was particularly important to these youth because, as homeless gay and transgender youth, other public and private places did not feel safe for them,” the study said.

But the youth featured in the study also reported facing harassment and hostility from community members in the Castro. They mentioned how they were treated as outsiders in a country they noted was “predominantly inhabited by middle-class gay male adults” and said they felt left out of the community as “they are the ones who want or are able to spend money in stores that can fully participate in the culture of the neighborhood.”

Today, the gathering spaces in the Castro are still mostly commercial, although there are a number of community organizations in the neighborhood that offer free housing navigation services for LGBTQ+ people. The specificity of these programs may be another reason why homeless people are drawn to the Castro from other parts of the city.

As it turns out, several of these organizations—including LYRIC, a center for LGBTQ+ youth, and the SF LGBT Community Center—are part of the Castro Merchants Association.

Adam-Michael Royston, LYRIC’s vice president, says the association’s letter does not represent all of the homeless people in the Castro or the spirit of the neighborhood and its history.

“Castro has been a beacon of hope for queer individuals for more than 30 years, and we must constantly remember to be inclusive and in the community,” Royston said.

He added that as anti-transgender legislation takes hold in other parts of the country, an influx of young people fleeing conservative states have made their way to San Francisco — and many end up in the Castro.

“The reason so many of us ended up in the Castro is the same reason so many of our young people end up here, too,” Royston said. “I think that letter, for young people running away from the crises they’re in, is not supportive.”

But business owners like Karraker believe that people who openly use drugs and experience public mental health crises are causing the neighborhood to suffer, regardless of their identity.

“Regardless of who it is, we cannot accept the idea that someone could come to the Castro, take drugs and be mentally ill to the point of being a threat to themselves or a threat to residents or tourists. This cannot continue,” said Karraker.

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