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San Francisco homeless shelter employees lack sufficient gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer, leaving them underprepared and afraid as the shelters where they work continue to be packed tight with people, according to Jane Bosio, a representative at OPEIU Local 29. 

The union represents hundreds of nonprofit-run shelter employees at around nine San Francisco homeless shelters, including the 186-bed Navigation Center on 13th Street, where a resident tested positive for COVID-19 this week and had to be quarantined.

“I have employees terrified of going to work, terrified of being exposed,” Bosio said. “A lot of these low-wage workers are young folks with kids at home.”  

In an interview with Mission Local, Bosio described a dire situation: Shelter employees were scouring sites for gloves, working with no face masks, and having to bring their own hand sanitizer to work — all while earning only minimum wage. 

“I have had members report to me that they have not been able to get tested,” Bosio said. She said three of her members are “presumed positive” — meaning doctors were unable to test them but told them to self-quarantine because their symptoms matched those of COVID-19. 

“I have had members report to me that they have symptoms of COVID-19 and that they are worried they’ve been in contact with people they believe had COVID-19,” Bosio said, adding that it’s been difficult to know for sure, as testing is presently scarce. 

Bosio emphasized that many nonprofit operators are not necessarily to blame. Episcopal Community Services — which operates multiple shelters and two Navigation Centers — and Community Forward SF, which operates several resource centers for the homeless, were proactive in obtaining supplies, she said. 

But the city, she said, has not stepped up in giving employees hazard pay and the proper resources shelter employees desperately need. “Multiple employers are contacting me and telling me that they are enormously understaffed,” Bosio said. “People are getting sick.” 

One nonprofit that did not proactively obtain supplies, she charged, was St. Vincent De Paul Society, which operates San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter — the 340-bed MSC South — as well as the 186-person Navigation Center on 13th and South Van Ness, where a resident tested positive for the highly transmittable disease this week. 

“Good and organized employers rushed out and got the all PPE (personal protective equipment) they could and advocated with the city and tried to get more materials,” Bosio said. “And disorganized employers did not take steps needed to get materials.”

Shari Wooldridge, the executive director of St. Vincent De Paul Society, said Bosio’s assertions were “not true at all,” adding that her organization has been asking for supplies quickly and often, and has even had some vendors drop out as demand for protective equipment has skyrocketed. 

“We’re working with what we have,” Wooldridge said, explaining that St. Vincent De Paul is actively making orders. “If orders are short, we have to find another vendor.” 

She added that shelter staff and clients are the nonprofit’s highest priority. “We’re doing everything humanly possible to get them exactly what they need,” she said. “Sometimes it is beyond our control.”   

Despite St. Vincent De Paul’s perceived lag, Bosio said that every nonprofit-run shelter needs support from the city that they aren’t currently receiving. 

To be sure, Bosio said, staff members at the 13th Street Navigation Center were reassured by the Department of Public Health’s response to the positive case announced Thursday, as the department sent a physician and other staff to conduct screenings and a professional cleaning team to sanitize the shelter. 

But as shelter employees remain on one of the city’s primary battlefronts, she said, those efforts are not nearly enough. Mission Local previously reported that, as of March 22, shelters had been operating without protocols for when a shelter resident tested positive — and lacked thermometers and other supplies for screenings. 

Emily Cohen, the Department of Homelessness’ interim director of strategy and external affairs, said that her department is working hard to provide protective and cleaning supplies to homeless shelters, and has done so to the best of its ability. The department is also sharing as much information as possible, as frequently as possible, with shelter staff, she said. 

“Supplies are a challenge, but we’re getting them to” shelters, Cohen said. “We’re all dealing in scarcity and shortage right now, and that is a national challenge — not ours alone — but it doesn’t mean it’s not critical.”

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