While many of San Francisco’s shopping corridors are boarded up and transit arteries have gone quiet, some parts of The City have remained strikingly unchanged amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.
In the Tenderloin, The City’s most densely populated neighborhood, which is also home to thousands of unhoused people, the sidewalks are still crowded and dirty, people still huddle closely together, and tightly-packed tents still line alleys.
For those sleeping on the street, in shelters or in single room occupancy hotels, complying with social distancing or shelter-in-place orders can be an impossible task.
“When the state locked down, nothing changed for us,” says Andre Thomas, 59, standing with a friend at the corner of Jones and Ellis streets. “We’re just kind of left to our own devices to figure things out.”
There are under 1,000 names on The City’s shelter system waitlist and the current shelters closed their doors to newcomers as they work to reduce current occupancy to offer space for social distancing.
“Have you been out at night? Is there anybody out?” Thomas asks rhetorically. “There’s no one out except us. There is nobody out except people that can’t go in.”
The San Francisco native says he recently returned to sleeping on the streets after losing his spot at a navigation center. After losing his wallet, and with Social Security and DMV offices closed, Thomas says he expects to remain unsheltered for the foreseeable future.
“It’s very dangerous if the virus begins to spread in the Tenderloin among people who are unsheltered,” District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney said Thursday. “Doing nothing will be disastrous if the virus does spread here in this neighborhood.”
The City announced Friday that it plans to transform the convention space at Moscone Center West into a shelter to use to relocate people from existing shelters to create sufficient space for social distancing. It’s set to open up next week.
The City has also begun leasing vacant hotel rooms — 300 so far, with negotiations underway on another 3,000 rooms. Local hoteliers have offered at least 11,000 rooms for The City to lease, city officials said Friday.
The leased rooms will be used to quarantine people who are homeless or living in SROs, where bathrooms and kitchens are often shared, if they tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. The rooms will come with meals and access to nurses.
Members of the Board of Supervisors, including Haney, have asked The City to use vacant hotel rooms to shelter the general population of people experiencing homelessness to prevent the spread of disease, but city officials have so far rejected that plan.
The Mayor’s Office said Friday that the additional hotel leases under negotiation may provide spaces for seniors and vulnerable adults at Laguna Honda and other similar facilities who need a relatively low level of care, frontline health care workers and first responders who are COVID-19 exposed or positive, and vulnerable populations living on the streets, those who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has said it is his goal to procure 51,000 hotel rooms for quarantine space for the state’s 108,000 homeless people.
The most recent point in time count found roughly 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, 2,855 of them in shelters. The number of people in supportive housing with shared spaces in The City is much higher.
Stephen Brewer, who lives in a supportive housing SRO for disabled veterans in the Tenderloin, says though he is not part of a group at risk of dying due to coronavirus, he is weary of the increased exposure he faces.
“Most of us were homeless, or we have issues,” says Brewer. “Some of the people may not be on the same level of trying to deal with it the way that I am. They may not care as much or be aware as much.”
The 44-year-old, who experienced homelessness after returning from deployment in Iraq with PTSD, says he has been self-isolating as much as possible for the past week, save for daily trips to help an elderly neighbor.
He says some staff at his building have already left to self-isolate, and changes to allow for social distancing such as delivering meals to resident’s doors have been made. But six bathrooms and tight hallways still must be shared by the building’s 20 residents, he says.
“If I were staying in an apartment building that was more of a quote-on-quote ‘normal situation,’ I wouldn’t feel as strange about it,” he says.
And the virus, which has caused thousands to lose their jobs as businesses shutter, will likely only exacerbate the existing homeless crisis. For some it’s already meant the difference between a room for the night and sleeping outside.
Michael Elmore, a 64-year-old veteran, says he normally earns money by selling the Street Sheet, a paper published by the Coalition on Homelessness that is given to homeless or low-income San Franciscans who keep the money earned from selling the paper.
“I normally sell that [the Street Sheet], but with this thing going on, people aren’t stopping, they’re not helping,” says Elmore. “There’s nobody out, and people are scared, scared to hold conversations, even say hello.”
Elmore says he usually gets a room at the European, a hostel in the SoMa, which costs him $32.50 a night. But with the decline in his income, he can’t afford it and he’s now sleeping on the streets.
The City has set up dozens of hand washing stations in the Tenderloin and other areas and The City’s Human Services Administration stated it is working to promote social distancing with homeless outreach teams. However, none of a dozen or more people experiencing homeless interviewed this week said they had been approached with information on the virus.
A few even said they were unaware there was a pandemic at all.
“People are still out on the streets,” says Elmore. “And this thing is over a week old. So if they were going to do something, they should have already done it.”