Keith Williams is homeless in San Francisco during the pandemic, and the shelters are closed: 'I have my head together. I don’t do drugs. I’m just in a bad situation.'

“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. 

Fishing alone near the Chase Center. Photo by Kerim Harmanci.

“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.  

That wasn’t particularly helpful, but in other communiques, he was also sent a link to this list of resources for the homeless and this map of Pit Stop toilets and hand-washing stations. 

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.” 

Easter weekend. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

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.  

April 12, 2020. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

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 covid19@homelessyouthalliance.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.

***

If you value our reporting, please support it. 

Joe Eskenazi

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...

Join the Conversation

27 Comments

  1. Huckleberry House to homeless youth: You’re On Your Own, Go Home.

    We’ve been limping along with the portfolio of homeless housing and service providers, some in government, mostly outsourced to nonprofits, that on a good day only addresses a fraction of the problems for a fraction of homeless people.

    This decentralized, outsourced largely post-Care Not Cash mostly patronage network, allows elected officials to check the box that they care for whatever vulnerable population is being discussed, in this case homeless people. But it is not designed or equipped by any measure to handle and solve the problems at scale.

    What did not work during good times falls to pieces during a pandemic.

  2. “The starkest: Go home.”…. A fate worse than death, having to leave the enchanted slums of San Francisco.

  3. He should go back to Arkansas before things get worse. This recession will be much longer and deeper than 2008.

  4. This is wrong. Why can’t our taxes go towards building more public houses for people like this guy who just need a helping hand and a place to call their own? I wish they asked me where I wanted my taxes to go. This is simply cruel, the homeless in the U.S get treated like subhumans and it just says a lot about us as a society.

    1. “He was homeless in Detroit. He was homeless in Chicago” “He left Crossett, Ark. and headed west.”

      Ok, let’s build this 26 year old a house. Where exactly does he want to live? San Francisco – one of the most expensive cities in the US?

      1. Why indeed are San Franciscans responsible for the failures of America who choose of their own free will to migrate here?
        Neither nor I nor any of my friends, all native San Franciscans have ever met a homeless person grew up here.

        1. Indeed. Even some of the guys I grew up with in the city back in 80’s who fell on hard times had enough friends and family still in town to get through a rough patch in their lives and not end up homeless. Not much of a mystery why people who already have run out of road before they show up in SF are on the streets here.

    2. Because each of those public homes cost $800k-$1m to build. There aren’t enough taxes in the state to meet San Francisco’s housing shortfall.

    3. Hey Yossi,

      Build public housing? Where have you been? SF is the most NIMBY city in the country. Full of people who resist any and all change

  5. If you have a felony conviction and a plea deal on a sex crime, you are not “not a bad person”. This guy isn’t even from here. Why would we want him in our neighborhoods or housed on our tax dollars which could be going toward fixing our pathetic third-rate public schools? I’m sympathetic to the plight of the homeless in general, but this guy is a parasite ruining it for the people who need help.

    1. You are a terrible person, and wouldn’t be saying any of that if he were white. A plea deal doesn’t imply innocence or guilty, and women are known to make false accusations especially toward black people, because they know everyone (well, people like you) will automatically believe them.

      We have the money. Unless you’re suggesting the richest country in the history of the WORLD can’t afford to shelter it’s own people… which is frankly ridiculous. How about using the money that goes toward illegal immigrants to help him out? He’s an American, and he is trying to get back on his feet.

    2. Carrying for these people in the ED I can tell you that over 1/3 tell me on intake that they’re not from here. Has made me think organizations like the Coalition on Homelessness are untrustworthy (actually have had multiple homeless people endorse that the Coalition on homelessness advises them to tell people they’re from here to “help you get what you need in the future.” Other cities homeless come here bc there’s endless handouts and it’s easy to get junk. Their words not mine

      BR M.D.

  6. Let me get this straight. This young man doesn’t have a dollar to his name and you have Govenor Gavin Newsom securing money for undocumented (illegal) immigrants? Also non profit organizations like Mission Asset Fund raising money to assist these same illegal immigrants? Anyone who has been to San Francisco know that Black Americans make up for the majority of the homeless in San Francisco and yet NONE of the organizations and government officials won’t lift a finger to assist the Black Americans that can trace their lineage to the slave plantations of North America. And yet this narative that the mainstream media has been pushing that Black people are more affected by the coronavirus and yet it is Black Americans who should be compensated MORE than everyone else. This clearly shows how much they care about us.

  7. But governor pass stimulus for Illegal immigrants. Also, I have seen so many stories of young white males same stories immediately get a hand up. Yeah this pandemic is not about we all in this together crap, only for a certain segment of people. Blacks are being criminalized while the I’m white and I say so is being used to defy, no mask large gatherings and no arrest. The media is blatantly ignoring with distractions. Black citizens have built this country on our Blood and still no Rights!! So much for “We all in this Together bs”

  8. City services are in for a massive cut back and the non profits and the massive amount of expensive services that they (depending on your point of view) provide, are in for a rude shock. SF’s budget is blown up and no way the anywhere from 300 million to a billion being spent to attempt to address the social issues in the city will be available when this is over. No predictions here, but this will finally be the apex crisis that can’t be kicked down the road, or pandered about, lied about, or concealed, from the public.

    1. Coalition on homelessness has been much quieter as of late. They know the funding is getting cut and are behaving much less outrageously.

  9. I pray for you Keith, this is the tribulation in your life but you can redeem yourself Keith Williams. Ignore all the negative post and voices and pray and work towards a better path, of being Healthy, set goals, be hopeful, practice redemption. Reach out to catholic charities 990 Eddy Street San Francisco, CA 94109 (415) 972-1200 maybe they can help you with a plan. Think about what positive things you want to happen in your life, how you can work towards redemption, and God will guide you. Being homeless is not the answer this is your tribulation now but not forever if you choose good, you can be redeemed. i hope to read your on a better path in the future.

  10. Hard to believe an able-bodied, clean 26-yr old has no choice or options but to peddle for change on the sunny streets of San Francisco in-between free meals at Glide. Of course he can’t be entrusted with the USPS mail system as a felon. What the hell is the writer’s point? Should we also lament on the fact that he’d also have a tough time being elected into the US Senate? Or should we instead ask exactly how much time he’s out into finding one of the millions of other jobs he’s qualified to do? There’s a lot of people who are hurting and unemployable and need a charitable hand out. He doesn’t sound like one of them.

    1. Sir — 

      The “peddling for change” is your invention. That’s not what Mr. Williams does and it’s not in the article.

      Your notion that we’re in the midst of a hiring binge will come as quite a relief to all the denizens of The Land of Make-Believe.

      Being a cold-hearted jerk may play well on the Internet, but it must be less fun in real life, no?

      Yours,

      JE

  11. College grades without felonies won’t be able to find work and will be moving home too. I am 58 year old and just left the Bay Area in early March after living there for 40 years. I can’t meet up with him to offer him my miles and take him to the airport but can someone please use their frequent flyer miles and give this young man an airline ticket home? Planes are cleaner than grocery stores right now and the streets of SF are only going to get worse moving forward.

  12. (oops, pre coffee typo in my previous message, please post this instead)

    College *grads* with steady work histories and without felonies won’t be able to find work and will be moving home too. I moved to SF in 1979 to attend college. For financial reasons, I just left the Bay Area in early March after living there for 40+ years. I can’t meet up with him to offer him my airline miles and take him to the airport but can someone please use their frequent flyer miles and give this young man an airline ticket home? Planes are cleaner than grocery stores right now and the streets of SF are only going to get worse moving forward.

  13. SF is harsh place. I wish all the tech offices didn’t crowd up SF, and instead spaces should be used for housing and entertainment(that enriches SF). Tech offices could’ve being built in South San Francisco, in industrial area, and open lands.
    What also bothered me, is the shear amount of empty buildings asking for far too much. I have no issues with people making profit, but not at the cost of making basic needs unattainable.

    IMO, a healthy society would have a system in place that makes the basic necessities available to those able to work any job. And luxury for those working hard.

    1. San Francisco has been expensive and had a homeless problem long before it had technology companies.

  14. No good reason to have only 30 cents. General relief gives up to $588 and free muni fast pass. He qualifies since he’s indigent and been in SF for a year. He could have applies months ago. Since he had cash from mowing lawns, he could still be doing that for cash. It’s Spring and lawns are growing faster. He would qualify for Greyhound therapy. But, there’s sure to be a hole-in-the-bucket excuse for every suggestion offered here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *