“Hey man, can I have a dollar?”
Keith Williams was sympathetic to the request, but wasn’t in a position to fulfill it. He was hurriedly counting out the cash he’d made mowing lawns, perhaps 80 bucks, which was all the money he had in the world.
“Sorry dude, I’m homeless.”
Then they were on top of him. Four men beat and punched Williams, took the money, and split. He had hoped to buy some food and, perhaps, a night or two in a motel. Instead it was another night on San Francisco’s chilly streets or the bushes of Golden Gate Park.
“I got like 30 cents in my pocket,” Williams, 26, tells me on the phone.
Before all of this he’d been staying with his uncle in a Tenderloin single-room occupancy hotel — but, with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and sheltering-in-place, Williams and all other guests of permanent residents were put out onto the streets.
He wants to get inside, but, since March 23, the city’s homeless shelters have closed to new residents to prevent the spread of disease. He also wants to work, and is sending out application after application for any position he can find. But these days, it’s a challenge even to keep his phone charged.
San Francisco is, even at the best of times, a Malthusian place. And now Williams and others are finding their status as street-dwellers is being cemented in place and declared all but mandatory — in the midst of a pandemic. Nearly eight weeks after the city’s Feb. 25 declaration of emergency, and four weeks after the six-county shelter-in-place order, the bulk of the city’s homeless people find themselves crammed into congregate shelters or living on the street.
The facade of unity in San Francisco government has cracked over just what to do about this.
While the Board of Supervisors last week passed emergency legislation mandating the city quickly obtain 8,250 hotel rooms and begin proactively funneling vulnerable populations into them, it remains to be seen if the mayor cares to enact this legislation — or if it’s even feasible.
Hundreds of homeless people have been placed in hotels as of last week. But, with the exception of elderly people or those with underlying health conditions, none have yet been placed proactively.
If Williams wants a room, first he has to get a lot older, a lot sicker, or commingle with known sick people.
“Dear Mayor London Breed,” Williams e-mailed the mayor on April 11. “I am a young man in need of help. I am homeless and living on the streets. I have been sexually assaulted by people and would like help getting into a hotel so I might be safe and I am willing to work so I would like help with a job as well.”
On April 13, he followed up: “I understand that you guys are helping the people that are 60 and over first but doesn’t my life matter too?”
Breed did not write back to Williams. But a staffer did, extolling the city’s efforts to house unhealthy elderly homeless people and directing Williams to this general information website.
The problem is, many of these resources are closed, stretched beyond capacity, or simply not functioning.
Homeless advocates add that great demand for the hand-washing stations has left about 40 percent of them devoid of water. Mary Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance says she and others were bewildered when workers loaded the Haight-Ashbury handwashing station into a city truck and motored off without leaving a replacement.
Again, nobody is getting into shelters for the foreseeable future, and the mayor has thus far been reticent to place healthy, non-elderly homeless people into hotels.
When asked what someone like Williams should do, Joe Wilson, the executive director of Hospitality House said, “I’m not sure what answer I can give. It’s hard for everyone.”
COVID-19, he continues, is exposing the injustices all too many San Franciscans grew inured to. Even in the pre-pandemic era, the available shelter space in this city only fulfilled 25 percent of the demand.
“But that’s not news,” Wilson says. “This crisis has simply shone a spotlight on the inequities and inadequacies of our current system of dealing with poverty.”
In Bayview, Gwendolyn Westbrook says the normal contingent of 90 people able to use the drop-in center at Mother Brown’s Dining Room has been reduced at city orders down to about 30. But that resulted in 10 people huddling in her doorway, trying to keep warm.
“No six feet, no nothing,” says Westbrook, the CEO of The United Council of Human Services. “They can’t come inside; we’ve reached our limit. What do they expect us to do?”
Some of the people huddling in her doorway are 24 or 25 years old — even younger than Keith Williams.
“I’m seeing so many people like him,” Westbrook says. “And it is heartbreaking. They don’t have any place to go. They’re on the streets. And they’re alone.”
Williams, like every person housed or not, has his own story. But the San Francisco version of it starts like so many people’s: Around a year ago, he was chasing a girl. He left Crossett, Ark. and headed west.
Your humble narrator didn’t ask too many questions about how that went; suffice to say Williams had been staying more recently with his uncle in the Tenderloin.
This is not Williams’ first go-round with homelessness. He was homeless in Detroit. He was homeless in Chicago. In the winter.
“I was not prepared for that,” he admits. “I woke up one morning and I was shaking. So I left. I did not want to be caught in a snowstorm.”
These days, he’s getting meals at Glide Memorial Church and sleeping out by the beach or within the vast confines of Golden Gate Park. The park is so big, he can keep to himself. He’s thinking about getting a tent, but has his worries. “I never slept in a tent before,” he says. “I heard people say it’s dangerous. People creep up on you.” (Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness suggests Williams get a tent. “You don’t have a locked door, but it’s better than sleeping rough. People don’t know what’s inside a tent so that presents a modicum of safety.”).
Williams speaks slowly with a hint of a syrupy Southern accent; he’s a “yes sir, no sir” guy. So it was with extreme politeness that he noted that his fervent hunt for employment faces additional barriers — because he’s a felon.
Many of the places that most desperately need able-bodied young men won’t consider him.
Eight years ago, when he was 18, he was convicted of property theft. “It was 2012 and, honestly, I did it. I was young and stupid.” In the intervening years, he says he took a plea deal on a sexual assault charge. While he claims innocence, he says his lawyer advised he take the deal rather than play Russian Roulette with the guaranteed lengthy prison sentence in Arkansas if he was convicted during a jury trial.
The Post Office is hiring, but Williams can’t work there, or so many other places mandating a criminal background check. So he’s downloaded Caviar and Postmates and peruses Craigslist for gigs.
“I know once all this is over people will be hiring like crazy,” he says. And then he sighs “But nobody knows when this will be over.”
That’s a common source of angst for all of us. But not all of us are sleeping with our shoes on, in the park.
Calling various homeless providers for this story, I gathered a range of advice for Williams and the many people like him in this city.
The starkest: Go home.
For a young, healthy person who arrived here only a year or so ago, the best thing to do might be to head somewhere else. Somewhere with family and cheaper rent.
“A 26-year-old able-bodied person who is not from San Francisco is not our priority and cannot be,” says one veteran homeless worker. “There are too many people who are older and sicker who’ll be prioritized for housing.”
Housing, however, is a pipe dream in April 2020. As the city only slowly and reactively puts the homeless into hotels, several homeless providers told me they expect large-scale tent encampments to crop up — hopefully with the city’s blessing but, if need be, without it.
“Having a space where people don’t have to worry about cops, and where there are handwashing stations, food and a little bit of protection would be something,” Howe said.
Westbrook, meanwhile, expressed frustration that park rangers earlier this month rousted socially-distanced tent city in Bayview Park on Third Street. “The city has a whole lot of real estate going on,” she said. “While they’re going through red tape, people are dying.”
Howe said the Homeless Youth Alliance could get Williams the sleeping bag and tent he needs (and if you or someone you know need one, write to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Willliams is eating at Glide — but Friedenbach also suggested checking out freeprintshop.org.
Westbrook, meanwhile, suggested he visit her in Bayview. “We have resources here. We can show him where to go. And if he can work — maybe we can hire him.”
That was welcome news to Williams. He’ll work anywhere, and this was somewhere. “I have my head together. I don’t do drugs. I’m just in a bad situation,” he said.
“Not everybody out here is a bad person. Some people just need help.”
If you have any work for Keith Williams, he welcomes you to reach out at KW840576@gmail.com.