Demonstrators at City Hall charged San Francisco with doing too little to protect the unhoused from smoky, fetid air. Photo by Julian Mark

San Francisco homeless advocates gathered at City Hall today to express discontent with how the city has handled days on end of unusually poor air quality. Speakers argued that, in the face of a public health “crisis,” city government has been remiss in taking care of its most vulnerable population: the homeless.

Around 20 protesters from the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Coalition on Homelessness made that clear on the steps of City Hall Monday afternoon. They carried signs that read “No Air, No Excuses” and “Open the Shelter 24/7.”

“The city has not adequately responded to getting our unhoused people — and people in general — masks for their lungs, or 24/7 shelter,” said Jackie Fielder, one of the event’s organizers and a member of DSA, through a bullhorn on the City Hall steps.

While the city has made an effort to pass out masks to homeless individuals — the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing says it had distributed 1,623 masks to street population as of Saturday — the coalition of protesters Monday afternoon said it was not nearly enough, and the city should open the shelters during the day when they are typically closed.

Randy Quezada, a spokesman with the Department of Homelessness, said that the Homeless Outreach Team has been performing wellness checks, offering masks, water and transport to shelter and drop-in centers — and will continue to do so as outdoor conditions remain substandard. To date, he said, more than 1,600 masks and about 700 bottles of water have been distributed.

The department “has been working closely with city and community partners to monitor the air quality and respond accordingly based on recommendations from the San Francisco Department of Public Health,” Quezada said. “Ensuring the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness has been and will continue to be our focus as we work to get people indoors and help them mitigate the impact of exposure to the poor air quality.”

Of the city’s 1,203 traditional shelter beds, 85 percent are located at sites that are open all day, he said, and all of the City’s Navigation Center beds are available 24 hours per day.  Six of eight family sites are open 24 hours.

But Coalition on Homeless volunteer Nicholas Kimura announced over the bullhorn that the city’s largest shelter MSC South, which contains 340 beds and 75 emergency beds, had just Monday opened during the day for those needing refuge from poor air quality. He noted that some shelters still boot people at 7 a.m. and only allow them to come back at 3 p.m., or in some cases, 7 p.m.

As of noon Monday, the air quality was in the red, meaning “unhealthy.”

“Unfortunately, this action was not done soon enough,” Kimura said. “When the air quality was the worst the city had seen — and when it was the worst in the world — people were still forced outside, people were still sleeping outside during the day.

Dale Smith, a DSA member, said that he and fellow members have distributed 2,800 masks to people throughout the city, with a special focus on the homeless population, and his group to distribute 3,700 more over the next couple days — including 1,000 that they will ship to his “comrades” to distribute in the North Bay.  

“We’re trying to target unhoused folks specifically because they have a much harder time accessing these,” Smith said. “But we’re really trying to get everybody.”

He said so far DSA has passed out — and plans to pass out — masks at homeless shelters like MSC South, Mother Browns, Homeless Youth Alliance, and Hospitality House. “Those are just a couple places,” he said. “We’re just trying to see where folks that are more vulnerable.”

Tyson, a homeless man, was sitting outside the library shortly before the rally. He was not wearing a facemask. He had a surgical mask on hand and said he used it when doing more physical activity. People distributing masks had offered him one in the last couple days, he said, but he turned them down.

“They didn’t explain what it was for,” he said. “And I didn’t see any sign so I didn’t think there would be a problem with the air.”

He did not know whether the couple was volunteering or with the city, but he said he would gladly take a mask now.

Another homeless woman sitting on the Civic Center lawn said that people who looked like “young city employees” gave her a mask in the last few days when she was in front of the library. She said police officers had checked in on her another unhoused individuals.

“That’s one thing they actually did,” she said, declining to give her name. But “they should have made it mandatory that we were off the streets.”

Government officials have praised city efforts over the past week. Questions directed at the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing about why it has disseminated far fewer masks than private individuals have not yet been answered.

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. why hasn’t the city passed masks to the homeless? have you seen “regular” people in the city? they could care less about their health and don’t take odorless fumes seriously. allowing their grandmas and infants to go about normally outside…hey if you can’t see or smell it, then it’s not a problem. and they don’t want to look stupid with the masks on. so only about 30-35% of “regular” people, with jobs, even walk around with them when the air quality sucks. (and these same people don’t google ‘air quality san francisco’ to even know how bad it is)

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    1. The city *has* been passing out masks to the homeless. See:

      These “activists” will protest anything. The city already spends a quarter of a BILLION dollars on homeless… and it’s never enough. The newly-passed proposition C will double that amount? And what will that do? Provide more salaries for these never-satisfied progressive activists, dump millions more into their unaccountable coffers, and mostly will result in more homeless streaming into the city to take advantage off all the free stuff – free food, free tents, free weed, free housing, free RV parks, lax laws… the list goes on.

      What we should be protesting about is why, when masks were sold out everywhere else, the city didn’t pass out masks to anyone BUT the homeless — no masks to the much more vulnerable elderly and children. These “activists” will protest anything.

      Just another example of the city’s common practice of neglecting the needs of the “regular” tax-paying citizens in favor of the select few in the progressives’ protected classes.

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  2. Oops! From the headline (“Protestors Decry San Francisco’s Efforts to Protect Homeless from Toxic Air”) I seriously thought the protestors were protesting that it was a waste of time for the city to be putting all that effort into handing out all the masks they’ve been handing out (as reported by Joe Eskenazi in Mission Local Nov 13) and not focusing any resources on getting masks to the rest of the city populace – including kids, who are far more susceptible to the smoke. (See Joe Eskenai comment below his article about how it doesn’t appear the city is providing any masks to anyone BUT the “unhoused.” –

    From what I’ve read in these few articles, it sounds like most of the homeless offered masks didn’t really take or use them. Given that a lot of these folks are abusing their bodies to an extreme (smoking, drugs, alcohol), breathing in the air (I believe I read one day Is equivalent to 11 cigarettes) probably won’t have an incrementally large affect on their health. What’s an extra few packs of cigarettes—sans the toxic chemicals no less.

    There is one quote from a homeless woman at the end of this article that should be taken to heart however — not just this week but every week. She says, “they should have made it mandatory that we were off the streets.” Now that would be the *most* beneficial thing to do for their health, but of course “homeless advocates” aren’t really advocating for that.

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