The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of many large congregate shelters such as the Next Door Shelter. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A new vision for emergency shelter services

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing nonprofits and officials to rethink services for the homeless

By Beth Stokes

As our community grapples with a crisis unlike any we have seen in over a century, the curtain has been pulled back on inequities we knew existed yet could not be fully brought into focus without the clarity that this moment has provided. Lack of internet access at home prevents students’ education and stifles achievement, while isolating them from social support. Inadequate protective equipment and wage stagnation hampers those essential workers who society relies on for food security more now than ever before. Neighbors in under-resourced communities and facing underlying systemic health issues are being impacted at higher rates of COVID-19 than the rest of the broader public.

The foremost inequity gripping the minds of frontline providers is the struggle we witness of those who we serve. As with many aspects of life, social distancing is a privilege that is too often denied to those who have a need for it most: people experiencing poverty and homelessness. In an effort to address this issue, San Francisco has moved over 1,400 people experiencing homelessness off of the streets and out of shelters into hotels to date: laudable, yet temporary, measures needed to support the health and wellbeing of thousands of San Franciscans.

The challenges we face today are a reckoning of sorts, an opportunity to re-envision a future unencumbered by the notions of the past. It is imperative that we begin imagining the world beyond this current moment and plan for the future by identifying a path forward for the people we are housing today to have the support and resources they need to remain housed tomorrow. It is not simply a matter of resources, but a test of our collective political will as a community.

One antiquated notion we must leave behind is how we structure our emergency shelters: the time of large congregant facilities is over. Episcopal Community Services alone operates two shelters with over 500 beds between them, facilities that are historically under-resourced, and are therefore ill-equipped to accommodate the rigorous public health guidelines needed to keep our guests and our staff safe during a pandemic. The city is closing these facilities, and our guests will be offered Project Roomkey hotel rooms where they can self-isolate. It is imperative that we, as a community, use the closure of these facilities as an opportunity to rethink the role of large congregate settings in our Homeless Response System, and how we collectively provide interim housing for our most vulnerable neighbors experiencing homelessness.

Today we issue a challenge to ourselves, our peers, and our community. We can create temporary and long-term housing that is human-centric. We can reduce the capacity of large scale shelters to provide a greater degree of more qualitative and individualized service, while simultaneously exploring creative mechanisms to site and fund new facilities within our community. We must ensure that the hard lessons we learn today are not learned in vain, so that our neighbors living on the street, in our shelters, and those fortunate enough to be placed in hotels, have access to the same level of safety and security going forward that much of the rest of us take for granted. Simply put, we can and we must do better.

We are not naive enough to imagine that this feat will be easily achieved or without tribulation. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our economy, and our leaders are now faced with balancing a number of worthy, and competing interests as budgets are slashed and companies make tough decisions. And yet these goals are not unachievable. It is a matter of prioritization and upholding our values. Be it earthquakes, fire, or the AIDS crisis, time and time again San Francisco has emerged stronger from the storm and now will be no different.

Beth Stokes is the executive director of Episcopal Community Services.

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