Jose Ramirez, the executive director of San Francisco’s St. Anthony Foundation, didn’t expect to be dealing with a global pandemic in his ninth month on the job. The foundation, which has worked to serve the city’s homeless and impoverished population for 70 years, is currently juggling maintaining social distancing orders while trying to keep up with their goal of treating each person who passes through their doors with dignity and respect.
“This is a community that was already well underserved for the pandemic hit, and it continues to be so at this point in time,” said Ramirez.
Social distancing in a place like San Francisco’s crowded Tenderloin neighborhood has been especially difficult. To adapt to the new guidelines and limit potential exposure to the virus, St. Anthony’s has adopted a curbside care model: They received a permit from the city to operate outdoors, spray painted lines on the street that are six feet apart for when people stand in line for meals, and limited the number of beds in their shelter in order to space them out properly.
“We didn’t have a pandemic playbook,” Ramirez said. “We’ve tried things and are just adapting week to week to really fine-tune these models to continue to serve our community and provide the resources that are needed in this.”
Though California Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Francisco mayor London Breed have been praised for acting swiftly and issuing shelter-in-place orders at a time when other leaders wouldn’t even acknowledge the virus as a serious problem, people without homes have been left with few options for hunkering down and waiting out the crisis. With a population of nearly 40 million people, California has one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population and for some organizers, finding emergency shelter to stop the virus from spreading has been an uphill battle.
“When we think about who’s high risk, everyone in our homeless community is high risk,” said Ramirez. “They don’t have the ability to shelter-in-place. They don’t have the flexibility in this densely populated environment to socially distance properly.”
The scramble for emergency housing
Organizers and housing advocates in California are working around the clock to adjust to the new normal of social distancing while still trying to keep the population safe—but it hasn’t worked everywhere. Last Friday, Breed announced that 70 people at San Francisco’s largest shelter, MSC South, had tested positive for the coronavirus, calling it an “outbreak.” Of the 70 people, two were staff members. Though the shelter normally houses 340 people, due to the pandemic the number of people permitted in the shelter had been dramatically reduced. Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent infection.
Now, with crowded shelters in the city, tents are popping up in new neighborhoods. Tents on sidewalks had once been viewed as an eyesore by the city, but now are considered an acceptable tool for homeless people to effectively practice social distancing.
Hotels and motels in the state have been stepping up to collaborate with homeless shelters and city officials to offer emergency housing. Tennis clubs and other businesses have also stepped up to offer their facilities, and the state is sending hundreds of travel trailers to assist with the problem. In Los Angeles County, local officials are scrambling to find 15,000 hotel rooms for the 60,000 homeless people in the area. As of April 15, 28 homeless people in the area had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I think that it’s easy to assume that there are enough rooms for all who need housing, and that all who need housing know about the rooms being opened to those in need,” said Jessica Sutherland of Daily Kos, who spent the majority of her childhood homeless in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the co-founder and president of Homeless to Higher Ed, a nonprofit that works to increase graduation rates for homeless college students. “Yet, from my experience as a homeless person and as an advocate, homelessness and poverty—especially for the folks who are somewhat new to that norm—is often a situation where scared people are secretive and keep to themselves.”
But even with more communities and businesses taking a hands-on approach to limit exposure to the virus, leaders in San Francisco have been accused of mishandling vulnerable populations, putting lives at risk. Makeshift shelters throughout the city are being criticized for their lack of humanity toward the homeless, requiring people to sleep in close, confined quarters on mats on the floor of the city’s Moscone Center.
‘A shift in attitude’
Advocates have been fighting for temporary housing and more aggressive action to combat homelessness for years, but the message didn’t seem to resonate as deeply as it does now.
“In the last year or so, even before the virus, I think you started to see a little bit of a shift [in peoples’ attitudes],” said Jonathan Deutsch, a housing location coordinator in Los Angeles County. “The public was sort of coming around to realizing that it was going to take drastic action even in the best of times to make a dent in homelessness.”
Support for temporary housing for homeless populations isn’t a new concept, but the level of widespread support has been picking up steam since the outbreak began. It’s also apparently making people who might otherwise be against the idea more sympathetic.
The fight for emergency housing has become a bipartisan issue. A recent report by the Justice Collaborative and Data for Progress found that approximately 81% of voters—including 79% of Republicans—support government measures to purchase or take control of unoccupied buildings in order to provide temporary housing for the homeless during the pandemic. In addition, 74% of voters support a temporary ban on law enforcement clearing out homeless encampments.
“We’re all interconnected,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. “The bottom line is that it’s in everyone’s best interest to address this problem in a way that reduces the risk of infection spread throughout this country.”
When the pandemic ends
Support for temporary housing during the crisis may be rising, but it won’t resolve the homeless problem after the pandemic is over. Emergency housing is temporary, and once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, it’s still unclear where homeless people will go or how quickly they’ll be pushed back out onto the streets.
“This problem isn’t going to go away when the virus goes away,” Deutsch said. “Right now, we seem to have—between public facilities and vacant hotels and motels—the infrastructure and capacity and willingness to keep everybody safe in the moment, but we’re going to have some very difficult decisions to make and a lot of heavy lifting to do in a few weeks or a few months time, and it’s going to be a completely different situation than anything we’ve ever prepared for.”
Though cities around the state are actively working to put systems in place for homeless people, some advocates are concerned that the ability and desire to assist will fade.
“LA as well as [San Francisco] have long had people on the streets who don’t fit the ‘dirty bum in a box’ stereotype at all, yet that’s still how Trump and so many advocates and adversaries continue to frame their situations,” said Sutherland. “As food banks continue to struggle for resources and people with homes are increasingly unable to pay their exorbitant rent, I am so terrified about what these cities will look like post-pandemic, when the forgiving policies and extra resources and giving spirits all dry up.”
When it comes to the future of the economy and planning for a post-pandemic social landscape, Beletsky hopes the government will continue to step in and provide assistance as the public adjusts to a new normal.
“I hope these mechanisms, now that they’re in place, will be fine-tuned and optimized—not just for the interest of property owners, but for public interest as well,” Beletsky said.
It’s still unclear whether these strategies will remain in place after the spread of the virus subsides, but housing advocates hope the problem will be acted on as swiftly and aggressively as it has been since the outbreak began.
“I hope this is a moment in time that we can reflect on our priorities as a community, as a city, and as a country, and making sure that we can prioritize our most vulnerable at all times, not just during a global pandemic,” Ramirez said.