Advocates say SF failed to distribute enough masks to protect homeless from smoky air

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San Francisco failed to provide enough smoke-filtering masks for the 4,500-plus homeless people living on its streets, advocates alleged on the steps of City Hall Monday, even as smoke from the deadly Camp Fire continues to envelop the Bay Area.

Volunteers working for those advocates managed to distribute more masks than The City by at least a thousand, according to counts provided by both the Department of Homelessness and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

San Francisco government-led teams have handed out roughly 1,600 masks and 700 water bottles to the street homeless population to date, said Randy Quezada, a spokesperson for the Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

But volunteers distributed more than 2,800 masks Friday through Sunday, said Dale Smith, a San Francisco native and Democratic Socialists of America member who helped organize the distribution. They’ll have distributed more than 3,700 in the next few days, he said, which DSA members paid for through donations.

Over the past week, DSA volunteers went to freeways, to streets, to groups like the Hospitality House and the Homeless Youth Alliance, to get out as many masks as possible. Smith said he saw his own friends go through adverse smoke-related health effects, which spurred him to help the homeless.

“You may not feel bad now, but it may be tomorrow, next week, a month from now,” Smith said, “your body will feel it eventually.”

One reason the advocates were able to out-pace The City in distribution may be simply explained by body count. The Homeless Outreach Team, which distributed the masks for The City, has eight vacancies on it, Quezada said, and only 22 members available to canvass San Francisco.

But city nonprofits would have been an easy avenue for distributing these masks, advocates countered. Glide Memorial, St. Francis Infirmary, the Homeless Youth Alliance, Larkin Street Youth, and other groups all have daily contact with a variety of homeless populations.

And a check of nonprofits that work with the homeless conducted by On Guard and SF Weekly found none had been provided masks by The City.

“We did not receive any masks” from The City said Ida Belisle, a registration coordinator with St. James Infirmary.

Though she did say the infirmary is moving locations and would be somewhat limited in its outreach ability, she said “I’m certain if we had been given a supply of masks we could’ve passed them out.”

They also do outreach at night, reaching some populations The City may not get to. St. James also had some small amount of masks in storage that they distributed, but Belisle said “it was a very limited supply.”

Brian Murphy, facilities manager with Larkin Street Youth Services, said they ordered their own masks “right off the bat” but only have about 50 left. Larkin spread about 100 masks through its various facilities in the Haight Ashbury and Tenderloin.

“Nothing came from The City,” Murphy told SF Weekly.

Thelma Andree with Glide SF said they received 2,000 masks from a coalition of “small social justice organizations,” though they could not clarify which ones. The City did not provide Glide with masks for the homeless, they confirmed.

The number of people living on our streets may sometimes be as high as 7,000 depending on the day, as the population frequently fluctuates, according to advocates and city officials.

But no matter how you slice the numbers, the amount of shelter available has been insufficient during this crisis, advocates allege.

“San Francisco is not at all ready to handle climate chaos, especially for the poor,” said Jackie Fielder, an organizer with the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA and the Coalition on Homelessness rallied at City Hall Monday afternoon to call attention to The City’s smoke response and handed out free masks on the front steps.

Criticism of The City’s emergency response services isn’t necessarily new. In 2017 the Board of Supervisors held a hearing to lambast the Department of Emergency Management and Department of Public Health for its slow opening of places of refuge during a historic heat wave, which resulted in the deaths of three people.

SEE RELATED: SF officials called to answer for delayed emergency response during heat wave

Quezada argued providing shelter from the toxic air can be more impactful than wearing smoke-filtering masks.

“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,” he said in a statement.

The Coalition on Homelessness alleged The City did not open its smaller shelters for 24/7 access to escape the air, and only opened other larger shelters for 24/7 access on Friday, days after the toxicity of the air was known to the public.

But Quezada countered that some 85 percent of The City’s 1,203 shelter beds are at sites open 24 hours a day and all of the public can access sites like libraries, which are touted by the Department of Emergency Management and Department of Public Health as refuge areas.

Over the weekend The City saw about 49 people use the 75 additional shelter mats provided for the homeless on Nov. 15, when the air quality hit its worst point locally, Quezada said.

“We did not broadly distribute masks to non profits who were seeing people inside,” he said. “The best advice was to have people get indoors. We focused mask distribution on people who were outside and to some extent on people that we knew who were especially vulnerable at supportive housing sites.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

Members of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Coalition on Homelessness distributed air filter masks at City Hall on Monday to call attention to what they said was inadequate efforts by the city to get masks to those living on the streets. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)
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