Tents on Florida Street, in the Mission. Photo by Sam Lew

Nestled among other street detritus on Florida Street sits a dry and seemingly abandoned handwashing station. Not far off sit three tents. Their inhabitants do not avail themselves of the nearby sanitation facility. No one does. 

“I don’t know if there’s soap or if the water is running,” says one tent-dweller. “I think they just left it here and forgot to pick it up.” 

The city’s thousands of unhoused residents are among its most vulnerable to the looming COVID-19 pandemic — especially when unable to adequately “shelter-in-place” or even wash their hands regularly. The rapid spread of the virus among mobile transients or shelter residents squeezed into communal living situations could undo the city’s best-laid plans and rapidly overwhelm its already-stretched healthcare system. 

Also, there seems to be a divergence on the street between policy and practice: While the city has not yet instituted any formal curfew, San Francisco Police officers “told us there’s a curfew from midnight to 8 a.m. We have to stay inside our tents,” said one of the Florida Street tent-dwellers. “Because that’s when it’s colder and we’ll get sick.” 

Homeless advocates worry that even a handful of positive COVID-19 tests among the unhoused population could be the spark that ignites a citywide conflagration. And the city’s response has, thus far, not assuaged worries. 

At Hospitality House, a homeless shelter on Turk Street, executive director Joe Wilson candidly admits that the city is “in uncharted territory, and nothing we’re doing is sufficient.” 

And, while the goal at this and every shelter is to “get people who are the most vulnerable out of harm’s way,” it warrants questioning at this time whether gathering large numbers of people into close proximity to one another meets that criteria. 

Wilson, for one, laments that he does not serve a “static population;” it’s a different crowd here every night. Of note, the city’s initial shelter-in-place rules forbade childcare centers with more than 12 kids, and mandated that those kids be the same every day. But that’s not the case with homeless shelters, which are far, far larger. Rather, it’s the opposite. 

At Hospitality House, Wilson is working to ensure that every person residing here is doing so on a long-term basis — “But we’re still getting one-night stays. We don’t have the authority to refuse people who are in an emergency seeking shelter. And that significantly increases the risk of exposure for everyone.” 

The city has announced efforts to instill “social distancing” even into its homeless shelters, reducing capacity; it pledges to pick up the slack by creating 1,500 beds in “pop-up shelters” around the city. This has not yet come to pass. 

One resident at Dolores Street Community Services told us that dinner tables are now spaced five to six feet apart. But: There are four diners per table. And, “they haven’t spaced any of the beds apart. It would be impossible to do so, because there’s not enough space.” 

Over at the Fifth and Bryant Navigation Center, a resident notes that there’s still soap in the dispensers — but toilet paper is hard to come by, a condition Mission Local is told is not unique to this Navigation Center. Residents here worry about cleanliness — of the facilities, and of the residents. “There’s a lot of things they can’t make people do,” says one. “Like shower.”

A derelict handwashing station sits unused on Florida Street. Photo by Sam Lew.

All of which serves as a preamble to the elephant in the room: What will the city do when someone tests positive for COVID-19 in a homeless shelter? This question was not directly answered by officials at both the Department of Public Health or Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

City officials did assure us that protocols for this scenario do exist. Our requests to see them in writing resulted in us being sent these March 19 protocols applying to Single-Room Occupancy hotels and permanent supportive housing. That’s not the same thing, however, as a homeless shelter. 

And the link in the document to homeless shelter policy is broken. 

Wilson, at Hospitality House, explained the policy as it’s been disclosed to him. If a resident tests positive, it triggers “a series of backwards steps.” All of the people that person has come in contact with will be identified and must quarantine in some way; staffers could quarantine in their homes, but other accommodations would need to be lined up for homeless residents. Entire shelters could be shut down, in rapid succession.  

The non-static population Wilson lamented about makes this task exponentially more difficult — and, at the same time, renders such an eventuality both more likely and more dangerous. 

Chris Herring, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in sociology who often works with the Coalition on Homelessness, predicted that groups of sick or potentially exposed homeless shelter residents would soon be shunted, en masse, to the 4,000-odd hotel rooms the city is wrangling. 

He worried, however, that this would be a reactive move, which would doom and neglect the healthy, ultimately exacerbating a dismal situation. He and other homeless advocates are calling for putting the city’s homeless population into hotel rooms proactively, before they’re exposed to COVID-19 or develop symptoms — a call echoed by Supervisor Matt Haney. 

The city is hustling to line up more than 4,000 hotel rooms this week. But who will get a room? Photo by Loi Almeron.

That would be a radical step, and a radical change of course. It was only last Monday that San Francisco officially reversed course on its policy of dismantling homeless encampments and bagging-and-tagging homeless people’s possessions — even during a pandemic. Now, such encampments will only be dismantled if they constitute a public safety issue. 

“Safety,” however, is a fairly nebulous term. And, separate and apart from humanitarian or morality issues, acting to disseminate and mobilize vulnerable homeless people during an infectious disease outbreak is highly questionable policy. 

Mary Howe, the executive director of the Homeless Youth Alliance, says police officers were still rousting homeless residents only days ago: “They’ve been driving around with bullhorns and telling people to move along,” she says, “which isn’t helpful when there isn’t anywhere to go.” 

This city’s homeless, Howe continues, are not “driven by the media” in their comprehension of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Their understanding of the situation is very limited.” 

And yet, very few homeless denizens haven’t figured out that something is up. Something big. Something not good at all. 

“The cops are scared to come near us now,” notes one of those Florida Street tent-dwellers. “They just drive by.” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. U people are horrible ADDICTION is not a choice it a disease . educate yourself . Its easy to talk crap but walk on someone elses shoes i bet it would hurt ur feet.

  2. I am a 49 year old homeless woman living with my partner and our dog, Honey pin the streets of Sacramento.. We have been homeless for 3 1/2 years.. I’ve been through 11 tents. I live on the easement of track lines that are Union Pacific Railroad property. This is the place I choose because I can have my tent and a place to camp without having to make camp every evening and break camp early every morning. I have been called a ‘homeless pig’and asked by the very people sworn to protect and serve “When are you going to leave? Just get the fuck out of here.” I’ve been yelled at and belittled by the Sacramento County Work Project crew, a usual bunch of suspects that are felons trying their best not to do time. Instead of being asked for my id, when encountering sheriff’s deputies, I’ve been asked for my ‘x-ref’ number–a number that identifies any inmate in the California prison system, which is given to you upon your first arrest. The number stays with you for the rest of your life.

    I’ve never been arrested.

    I’ve also worked as a kitchen and bath designer for nearly 20 years, paying my income taxes. I’ve paid a mortgage, and I’ve given to charity and I’ve served or county as a precinct officer for two presidential elections and various local elections.

    And now I’m living outside, living minute to minute, at nature’s whim. Literally stuck in a situation in which I spend ALL of my time: 1. Looking for a bathroom. 2. Looking for a new camp ground. 3. Looking for a water source to bring water to where I sleep and eat. 4. Looking for fuel to cook with: California SNAP! (Foodstamps) lasts longer if you cook your meals. 5. Looking for a shower. 6. Looking for a place to charge phones and portable chargers to be able to use my phone to call resources and family, to stay on top of the news of the world, which is important, especially now. 6. Find another bathroom. These tasks literally rake up my entire day.

    The current system of abusing the poorest citizens of America by making homelessness humiliating, criminal and nearly impossible to escape from is NOT WORKING.

    Be creative.

    ·There are at least 200 apartments and even more houses on McClellan Airforce Base that are dark and empty.

    ·What about those pop up tent cities in Modesto?

    And most of all, be kind. Many all of you are about 1-2 paychecks from being in financial ruin. This could happen to any of you. This will probably or has happened to someone you know.

  3. People must realize everyone homeless on these mean streets are not on drugs or mentally challenged and not there by choice. As we well know alot of this homelessness occurred from greed of mainly property owners. Hence the Snowball Effect, in my opinion this pandemic is a wake up call and people who turn up their nose and make judgement calls should realize they are just as vulnerable now as those living in those tents.
    Pray and stay safe.

  4. I’m n Spartanburg south Carolina. I bn living at a motel since Oct 18, 2019. Never a problem paying rent. But due to covid19 my job has bn temporarily halted. I will not b able to pay for my room starting this Friday. No one seems to know where I can get information on my options. I’ve tried organizations for financial help with no success. Please help

    1. Victoria contact your local DSS social service office immediately you probably have to do it by phone they probably will House you in the motel room your at. Talk to your front desk at the motel they may have the direct line to housing for DSS

      1. I am in Suffolk County Long Island New York also homeless also in a motel room having a hard time getting food or getting transportation to about 11 doctors in Riverhead I am from Riverhead New York but DSS housing refuse to put me in a motel room at a place called The Greenview Inn in Riverhead and instead put me at a place called TLC in Huntington Station almost 40 miles from Riverhead which has a lot of people in it Friday March 13th they put me in this motel room I am disabled have major Medical problems and I’m turning 74 no one in the news media is talking about all the homeless they are not talking about the funds that have been cut from HUD for housing vouchers not talking about the years of waiting to get a housing voucher and what the country our United States is doing to all the little people it’s not a shame but it is Criminal the DSs system has not been updated and modernized since it was put into effect over 30 years ago by the White House Senate and Congress then they turn it over to each state capitol to enforce by the lack of action of the White House Senate and Congress and Speaker of the House it is Criminal what’s our federal government has been doing to us for over 30 years end to top it all off the Senate and Congress have the Gaul as elected officials not to do their jobs but you play games with our lives

  5. the can was kicked down the street forever by every level of government and administration by not dealing with the situation and/or pretending some solution (such as setting up hand washing stations). now that we are getting into a real precarious situation we will receive the payback in the form of a terrible catastrophe.

    1. They had a “homeless” guy in Seattle who they had quarantined in a local hotel who skipped out too. He left, shoplifted from a store and hopped on a bus to get away. Good luck getting this population to comply with personal distancing….

      1. So, you take a isolated incident, and extrapolate it into an attack on all homeless. No great surprise.

  6. Well I would say that the illusion of inclusion has always been prevalent here in America, however, we cannot deny the fact that this is a global epidemic/pandemic. This isn’t the time to play the blame game or assume that one person or one entity has all of the solutions and can take care of a citywide, Statewide, and Global problem.

  7. Give the homeless a $1000 storage shed or a simple wood frame structure that can fit in a parking place to live in with some privacy and dignity. A chamber pot to pee in with permission to empty into street drain. Have artists paint and decorate the structures and give some prize money. This is wAy cheaper and effective than continuing this cruelty to the homeless and depressing the citizens of SF.

  8. Yes There is a big problem if one gets it. Then alot of people are going to get sick. I live in Albuquerque New Mexico and have a family member working at the shelter over 60 and were scared for his health.

  9. I am counting 20=25 homeless daily while walking my dog in a one block radius around 18th and Castro.

  10. I am a 54 year old female who as of Wednsday March 19th became homeless myself. I am in South Florida some of us would consider one of the riches counties however there is absolutle no room at the inn. I have reached out to every sindgle social service agency and shelter in the area including Catholic Charities and 211 aling with many others. It was like a tennis match being bounced from one agency to another and back again. The answer when they didnt pass the buck was the same no room at the inn, we cant help you, we dont have resources or funding for that. I did find an angel at one place who did pay for me to stay at a hotel which is over tomorrow. I have underlying health conditions which already affect my immune system and upper respiratory function. Its a disgrace despicable and the florida government and President Trump should be ashamed. I am terrified and i need some assistance. Please help!!!!!!

    1. Odd that you are in South Florida and are reading this Mission neighborhood story with its mention of the homeless on Florida Street in the Mission.

  11. Not sure how some of the city departments get away with it, but, the PR firms are buzzing with constant compliments similar to the situation we have in Washington that everyone complains about. It seems that no government entity is free of graft and corruption and coverups. in clouding San Francisco’s own. We can do better than this. We must be better than this.

  12. Most homeless people just need help to get back on their feet due to mental illness and being on the correct meds, there is no way a homeless person can take care of themselves living on the street, no food, water, bed and with none of these things they are unable to work or afford housing, especially in florida.

    1. Gee shelky you seem to have forgotten most of the homeless are homeless by choice because of the love of alcohol or drugs.
      Mental illness follows but I wonder why you don’t know about many of us who are outside because of medical ailments and waiting on social security.

      1. Not everyone is homeless by choice, idiot. A lot of us homeless who don’t have addiction problems have jobs, asshole. Even then, that’s still not enough, because rent prices are so astronomically ridiculous thaz we can’t afford anywhere to live, you jackass.

    2. Homeless shelters in Las Vegas NV have not taken any action. There are no 3 or 6 feet social distancing. At the Homeless Resource Center on Foremaster, everyone there continues to sleep within INCHES of each other. During the day, everyone continues sitting next to others. Nothing really has changed much. People continually cough openly without anything done to protect others from catching whatever sickness they may have.

    3. And the young guy I saw bent over at the waist with his head at ankle level as I walked up Market a few weeks ago was just having problems with his meds? Which med would that be. And the people passed out on the cement or some cardboard, which jobs do you see them taking.