On Guard: SF rolled out 25 extra mats for 4,200 homeless people during storm

On Guard column header Joe

This week’s rains pelted San Francisco like we haven’t seen in months, endangering the health of the estimated 4,200 homeless people living on our streets.

But worry not! “The City that Knows How” rolled out an additional 25 shelter mats Wednesday night for those living on the streets to escape the storm.

Yes, you heard that right: 25 mats. Not beds. Not cots. Mats. For 4,200 people. In a city where the waiting list for a shelter bed routinely exceeds 1,000 people, even in good weather.

City government touted this tremendous achievement on Twitter Wednesday night. “ICYMI HSH is expanding shelter due to the rain and inclement weather. 25 additional mats will be available tonight through 2/28.”

(For the uninitiated, ICYMI = In Case You Missed It, and HSH = Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing).

Just to make sure this wasn’t a fluke, an errant bit of information amidst a sea of other homeless support, I reached out to Randy Quezada, spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness. The department does annually provide help during the deepest winter cold, churches throw open their doors to offer extra space in a really, truly great effort called the “Interfaith Winter Shelter Partnership,” which itself provided 65 mats to unsheltered people Wednesday night.

Surely a similar plan to increase available mats during the harsh rains had been activated, I assumed. Quezada assured me there were actually more beds available.

Oh good! I thought. So how many more?

“The one-night beds are scattered throughout the shelter system,” he said. About 80 of them.

Again, for 4,200 street homeless. In the middle of a storm.

Now, this wouldn’t be such a shockingly disparate set of numbers if there were alternatives for our unhoused neighbors. And indeed, many have tents, and those that didn’t were about to get some: Sasha Perigo, a member of the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America chapter, canvassed her fellow members to raise $1,000 to help keep people warm in the rain.

That money helped the socialists and the Coalition on Homelessness pass out ten tents, ten tarps, fifty ponchos and 75 pairs of socks to people living on Division Street and nearby San Bruno Avenue Saturday night, to prepare.

“We were probably out for about four or five hours,” said Brian Edwards, a volunteer with the coalition.

Only The City doesn’t like tents — and homeless neighbors said the San Francisco Police Department quickly told people to shred or toss their tents, less they be cited, or worse.

Edwards told the grim tale: “We heard the same stories from everyone … We heard from one couple who were told, ‘we won’t mess with you as long as there’s no structure here.’ They were laying on blankets and mats, so we definitely gave them a tent.’”

But shortly after, even the tents Perigo and Edwards handed out were gone, as the SFPD repeated their mantra: no tents, even in the rain.

Few emergency shelters. No tents. No relief.

I called SFPD to ask what the deal was. Were they enforcing the tent ban, Proposition Q? Were they properly offering shelter as they are legally required to do when tossing tents?

Well as it turns out, the tent crackdown was part of what The City refers to as “HSOC,” its Healthy Streets Operation Center (How’s that for an Orwellian name?). That’s a coordinated effort between the Department of Homelessness, Public Works, SFPD, the Department of Public Health, and others. Generally, they do good works, but this sounded like something else.

Andy Lynch, a spokesperson for HSOC, said the department tried to help people into shelters.

“It is not healthy for anyone to sleep in a tent on the street,” Lynch wrote in a statement. “HSOC leads its outreach with offers of shelter and services to get people the help they need, and at times cleans up encampments, mostly for health-related reasons. HSOC’s priority is bringing people inside and finding the appropriate place and services for them so they can transition out of homelessness.”

That was not a direct answer to the questions I asked any officials, of course. And it doesn’t solve the simple question of arithmetic: roughly 25 mats plus sporadic spare beds dotted haphazardly across The City offered during a severe rain event for 4,200 people, made even less understandable now that it’s routine for The City to toss — or encourage people to toss — tents.

That’s all mystifying to Couper Orona, one of the volunteers handing out tents Saturday night, along with Perigo and Edwards. Orona understands better than most why tents are needed — she herself lived on the street for years, before purchasing an RV to live in.

Remember then-mayor Gavin Newsom’s historic, country-rattling move to honor same-sex marriages at City Hall in 2004? Photos on City Hall’s steps taken by Getty Images of same-sex couples embracing were published around the world. Those photos include Orona kissing her then-partner.

Getty is a service that sells images of big news events to newspapers worldwide. It’s possible some young lesbian woman somewhere in the world saw Orona embrace her partner, and had her life changed.

Sadly, it was a later divorce that saw Orona find her way to the streets. A retired Sacramento firefighter, she was hurt and disabled in the line of duty, she said, and knows how harsh it can be at places like Division Street, where she handed out tents. But Orona still believes in The City.

“I always say, we’re San Francisco, we’re the shit,” but, she said, “this one particular thing, San Francisco doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

But why is having a tent during the rain so vital? I asked Orona to explain it someone who hasn’t experienced homelessness what sleeping in the rain is like, in her own words. Over the phone, Wednesday, this is what she said:

“It’s like a nightmare where you wake up and you know, you’re falling, you’re scared awake.

You can’t really sleep. You don’t have any coverage, anything protecting you. Anyone can walk up on you, and they do. It’s scary. You can’t sleep, your eyes are opening and closing.

When the wind comes in, and the rain comes in, it soaks through your whole being. That cold, you can’t shake it, and there’s no way of getting dry again, for hours. You can’t go into Starbucks, you’re all wet. You want to get warm but you can’t. It’s like reaching for a doorknob but you can’t reach it, missing it, missing it, missing it.

When you have a tent, that’s your shelter, that’s your protection. It’s like a castle. It stops people from looking in, taking your things, from being creepy… you feel like you can get a good night sleep.

When you don’t have that simple layer of tent, it’s like you’re on stage for the world — to steal from you. Hurt you. It’s very scary and cold.”

25 mats. 4,200 street homeless. And no tents allowed.

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

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