Outside the SOMA Chabad, Oct. 25 2021. (Photo/Rabbi Moshe Langer)
Outside the SOMA Chabad, Oct. 25 2021. (Photo/Rabbi Moshe Langer)

A homeless encampment crowded an S.F. synagogue. Its removal came with remorse.

In the days before Rosh Hashanah this year, the president of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav found a homeless encampment had sprung up at the synagogue. About a half-dozen people were sleeping in tents on either side of the building across the street from San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. The entrances and exits had become inaccessible.

Before the pandemic, it was not unusual to see people sleeping in tents a few steps away from Sha’ar Zahav, the city’s historically gay and lesbian synagogue. Throughout 2020, as more tents appeared around the synagogue, staff brought meals to the unsheltered people. They’d sweep the sidewalk around the tents and hand out trash bags, then collect the filled bags.

However, in 2021, this cooperative relationship between the synagogue and the unsheltered individuals dissolved, according to Marc ​​Lipschutz, the synagogue’s president.

“Our campers in 2021 were not responsive, did not pack their trash, did not move their trash. They urinated on our building regularly,” Lipschutz said.

Maintenance staff that came three times a week to collect trash were increasingly dealing with a “monumental task,” Lipschutz said. He instructed them not to touch the hypodermic needles they’d find on the ground.

​​”Not all of our homeless neighbors were substance abusers. But some of them most certainly were,” Lipschutz said, “and were frequently under the influence, and sometimes belligerent.”

In August, as the synagogue prepared to host in-person worship and resume its religious school, Lipschutz began contacting public officials: a member of the Board of Supervisors, the mayor’s office, the police department and San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

“I felt I needed to balance the dignity of individual people who are without housing and the safety of my congregation,” he said.

“I also want to emphasize that I did not want our neighbors to be removed without being offered housing and related services. I requested assurance that their possessions would not be confiscated, because I believe, in the past, that this has happened. And [I requested] that they would not be relocated violently, that they’d be relocated with compassion.”

Over a two-week period, outreach teams from the Department of Emergency Management, in conjunction with officers from the SFPD’s Mission Station, visited the encampment to determine which residential programs or shelters people might want to go to, according to Sam Dodge, who had just come on as the new director of San Francisco’s multiagency Healthy Streets Operation Center.

We love our location and all that that brings with it. This is part of the challenge.

Focused relocation efforts took place over the Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4-6, when the people living in the small encampment transitioned, with their belongings, to city-sanctioned safe sleeping villages and navigation centers, which are enhanced shelters with greater privacy and on-site services, Dodge said.

“It did resolve well. We did take our time,” Dodge said. He said no one was arrested or dispossessed of their belongings. The goals Lipschutz outlined were met.

Lipschutz takes responsibility for initiating the clearing of the tents, and admits he got pushback from several congregants who felt that unsheltered individuals, because of insufficient affordable housing, should be permitted to camp on the sidewalk. He acted anyway, out of concern for public safety.

“For someone who says, ‘Marc, you were wrong,’ I’ll have to say, ‘I am sorry. This pains me greatly.’ And in some ways, perhaps I was wrong. But I felt that I needed to balance the needs of communities, including my community of Sha’ar Zahav.”

More than two months since their removal, the individuals and their tents have not returned, Lipschutz said.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav since July, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Rabbi Mychal Copeland in front of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. (Photo/Norm Levin)

Sha’ar Zahav’s Rabbi Mychal Copeland said homeless people nestling near places of worship present a challenge, and that she meets with nearby church clergy in an attempt “to figure out how we can best make positive change happen in our city for our unhoused neighbors.”

She said she supported Lipschutz in his actions toward moving the encampment from the synagogue.

“We love our location and all that that brings with it,” Copeland said. “This is part of the challenge.”

There are an estimated 5,000 unsheltered individuals in San Francisco on any given day, according to Dodge. And the total number of people without permanent housing citywide hovers at more than 8,000, according to the last Point in Time Count from 2019, although the number no doubt has climbed higher during the pandemic. The count scheduled for 2021 was postponed due to the pandemic. The next formal count of the city’s homeless population will be in January, the San Francisco Public Press reported. That data provides key funding for the city’s homeless services.

These services are particularly urgent in the South of Market area, where Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. (located on Natoma and Sixth streets, near a liquor store and a single-room occupancy hotel) comes across someone sleeping at Chabad’s front entrance nearly every day. He brings coffee and boxed meals to the people sleeping against the synagogue’s outside walls, and greets them as he passes by. He notices human feces and dog waste on his way in.

Langer has a long beard and a black hat. The ads feature drawings of a cow with a third eye wearing a bowler hat.
Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of San Francisco on patrol in SoMa. (Photo/Max A. Cherney)

“This is their home,” Langer said. “ A lot of them grew up on Sixth Street.”

When someone is sleeping at the entrance and blocking access to the center, he’ll ask them to move and, when necessary, call 311, the city’s nonemergency helpline. He says it usually takes three days for someone to come out, and if an individual is removed, “within a night or so, they’re back.”

He maintains a relationship with nearby Hospitality House, which offers programs and a shelter and tries to connect homeless individuals to the rehabilitative resources the organization offers.

“If you don’t reach out for the other guy,” Langer said, the issues around homelessness are “going to come tumbling down on you.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.