As we try to adapt to the rapidly-evolving coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that a new collective reality is facing us. This includes the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place rules implemented in a bid to contain further spreading. Dubious “corona celebrities” are already emerging, such as the man who hoarded 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer, while dizzying lines outside Costco, filmed using drones to capture their scale, project an image of dystopia.
For the most vulnerable members of our community, particularly unhoused people, living in an emergency predates this global pandemic and is part of daily life. Four hundred homeless San Franciscans have died on our streets in the past three years, which is an unprecedented crisis.
California is one of the richest states in the U.S., the richest country in the world, yet the institutional response to homelessness continues to be cruel and punitive. The gulf between the number of people experiencing homelessness and available housing units or shelter beds is thousands wide, forcing unhoused people to live and sleep in public spaces and on the streets. Now, under the new coronavirus guidelines, an obvious question comes to mind: How are 5,100 people living on the streets of San Francisco expected to shelter-in-place?
In “normal times,” tents and sleeping gear provide basic privacy and baseline protection from the elements. During a pandemic, they provide these alongside a means of self-isolating and social distancing. A tent is not an eyesore; it is a means of survival when there simply are not enough beds for people who need them.
The Democratic Socialists of America San Francisco Chapter seeks to expose how The City is failing its most basic function, while supporting our unhoused neighbors with essential supplies. By the end of this month, we will have distributed more than 100 sets of tents, sleeping bags, and mats, along with socks, bottles of water, snack bars, wipes, and maxi pads in an act of mutual aid and solidarity. We are taking recommended necessary safety precautions and practicing social distancing during distributions.
As socialists, we believe in justice and fundamental rights for all people, because true democracy cannot coexist with inequality. We condemn capitalism for causing homelessness, and we hold the capitalist class responsible for using the state for their benefit at the expense of what all of us, housed and unhoused, need to survive. We started this project to highlight the inhumane practice of homeless “sweeps” conducted by The City, where personal property and essential supplies are illegally confiscated and destroyed.
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) has advised unhoused people to maintain at least six feet of distance between tents, with no more than one person per tent. This indicates an implied approval of tents, but HSH has collaborated with the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Police Department to confiscate people’s tents over the past two years, so mistrust is understandably rife, especially since 311 data shows sweeps have occurred as recently as Wednesday. Even Los Angeles City Council voted on Tuesday to allow tents to stay up during daytime hours as a temporary coronavirus measure; as a city that others look to for leadership, we can and should make decisive choices for lasting structural change.
Shelby Wildeman, an unhoused person in San Francisco shares his reality with us: “So this virus thing affects us homeless also and it is really affecting me. The libraries are all closed for the month so that means there is one less place to go to get out of rain… Most of the places I get free meals at are not serving food for a while.
And the worst is that I work doing odd jobs for a couple people to make money for bills. And all of them but one messaged me today cancelling all my jobs till after the virus thing is over. So there goes all my work gone for about a month. That is gonna hurt. And it is really hard to find water at night now. Hope everyone else is doing better out there.”
When this crisis subsides, The City may well return to business as usual, which means encampment sweeps and a severe shortage of affordable housing. We must treat the homelessness crisis as an emergency in its own right, demanding safe and democratically controlled housing for all and an end to the criminalization of our unhoused neighbors. Until then, we will step in to provide mutual aid where The City will not.
We can’t continue this work without your help: We are fundraising, and you can donate to this vital mutual aid project here: https://dsasf.org/tents
Abi Ramanan and Marion Wellington are members of the Democratic Socialists of America San Francisco Chapter.