State and local officials have moved fast to find emergency shelter for unhoused residents affected who need to quarantine due to coronvirus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Opinion: Finding solutions to homelessness that last beyond the crisis

COVID-19 has inspired quick action. We need to maintain that urgency.

By Andrea Evans

COVID-19, and the emergency measures taken to limit its spread have impacted every Bay Area resident. Things that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago — closed schools and businesses, empty grocery store aisles, containers of Purell as the new “it” accessory, a thriving economy that is now sputtering — have become our new stark reality.

As our local and state leaders pass one unprecedented emergency measure after another, we are forced to reckon with the fact that there are thousands of unsheltered residents in San Francisco who cannot abide by these critical health guidelines, imperiling their own health and the health of the people with whom they come in contact. Wash your hands regularly? Social distancing? Even these seemingly simple steps are not possible for people who have no reliable form of shelter at all, which is, in part, why the state has forecasted that as many as 60,000 unhoused Californians could fall ill with COVID-19.

On March 16, our State Legislature moved at warp speed, approving up to $1.1 billion in emergency funding to address the COVID-19 outbreak. Significantly, some of the funding is intended to “support local government to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in homeless populations and to provide safe beds for people experiencing homelessness.” By March 18, the media reported that San Francisco officials had already procured 500 hotel rooms to shelter individuals experiencing homelessness and were considering using schools and churches to expand shelter capacity. As of March 23, local hoteliers had reportedly offered 8,500 rooms for unhoused San Franciscans as well as first responders and others in need.

We applaud our local and state leaders for acting quickly and boldly in this moment of crisis to protect all residents, particularly our most vulnerable. And yet, we must also acknowledge that for our unsheltered neighbors, living in a state of emergency is not novel; they have faced daily crises for years.

It has taken the COVID-19 crisis to force us to move rapidly and creatively to address homelessness. Now that we are focused like never before on this issue, let’s harness our ingenuity and resources to transform these short-term measures into sustainable strategies that will reduce homelessness over the long term.

Let’s maintain our urgency even after COVID-19 no longer dominates the news. And when this state of emergency ends, we must continue to think creatively to develop a solutions space that is big and effective enough to address the challenge of homelessness. How do we do that?

We use this moment not just to provide emergency shelter, but to chart a long-term course to house our homeless population permanently.

We bring together individuals with lived experience, nonprofits, philanthropy, health care, the private and public sectors, labor and faith groups to help chart that course.

We fund these plans at the level necessary to ensure success and do so for the long-term.

We can start with the 500 people who will be housed in hotels in San Francisco. Let’s work with them to develop a long term housing plan. Let’s start now, and let’s take our thinking way beyond these 500 people. There are over 5,000 people living without shelter in San Francisco, many of whom are elderly and/or living with compromised immune systems. All In stands ready to work collaboratively to help turn short-term shelter measures into long term housing solutions that result in a better city for everyone.

A return to normalcy should not mean back to work and school for some and back to living on the streets for others. That type of normal would represent a collective failure of our imaginations and our political will to act as if we are truly all in this together.

Andrea Evans is the Campaign Manager for All In, a campaign to bring San Francisco nonprofits, philanthropy, health care, businesses, faith, labor and everyday residents together to support solutions to homelessness. Progress is possible when #WeAreAllIn!

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