Rodney Conway, who lives in a tent in the Mission, has found a silver lining in the compassion from others towards him in his neighborhood. (David Horowitz/Special to S.F. Examiner)

On the streets, the struggle to get by intensifies for San Francisco’s homeless

The shelter-in-place order reduced access to amenities many depend upon.

A hotel room can’t come soon enough for Kenny Jacobs.

Jacobs, who has lived on and off the streets since 1989, said that with the closure of public facilities including playgrounds, he and other unhoused residents are struggling to meet basic needs like finding water to drink.

“When we’re thirsty, there’s nowhere for a lot of homeless people to get water,” Jacobs said.

San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order closed public libraries, recreational centers, parks, shelters and businesses that many residents, especially those unsheltered, depend upon.

On the streets, residents have less access to water fountains, restrooms, hand-washing stations and protection from the elements. They’re also having trouble finding electrical outlets and internet access, which cuts off many from the news, up-to-date information on safety and support services, and calls with their loved ones.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is providing “resources and access points” “where people can charge devices, get restroom access, meals, and other essential services,” according to San Francisco’s Joint Information Center.

However, more than a dozen homeless residents and advocates interviewed report that these kinds of necessities are difficult — and sometimes next to impossible — to come by.

As a result, while The City begins placing thousands of homeless residents into hotel rooms, residents who are homeless or expeiencing housing insecurity must get by with less. On Friday it was learned that 70 people in The City’s largest homeless shelter have tested positive for COVID-19, raising concerns about the dangers homeless people are facing.

“This is why every path that we can think about leads back to private hotel rooms. It all comes back to the incredibly urgent necessity to move people into hotel rooms four weeks ago,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, on Thursday.

A total of 68 residents and two employees at the MSC South homeless shelter tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Mayor London Breed said Friday.

Brandon Derifield, a 31-year-old homeless resident designing a sign to panhandle, said he would be grateful for a hotel room where he could shower or use the bathroom. However, he’s not scared of dying on the streets.

“If I do catch the coronavirus, and I do die, that’s just a part of life — I’ve already accepted death,” he said.

But he does fear not being able to see his family.

Being unable to charge his phone or use the public library’s internet connection means he can’t talk to them, except when one of the few remaining businesses allows him to use their electrical outlet.

It’s been two weeks since he’s been in contact with his family, much longer than usual.

“I might go down to BART and use the phone (and) pay a dollar to call my parents for four minutes and say what’s up,” he said.

Kaila Schouten, a Bernal Heights resident who’s housed with families, said she’s seen human feces on the sidewalks worsen threefold since The City closed off the libraries.

“People would choose to relieve themselves in a dignified way if they had that option,” she said.

The City plans to add 15 new portable toilets and handwashing stations next week to its current deployment of 24 “pit stops,” or public restrooms with sinks — three that are open around the clock. That’s in addition to 30 public hand-washing stations added several weeks ago, some no longer functional.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who introduced a resolution last week to deploy 100 restrooms, said that while he does appreciate the additions, they were needed long ago. He plans to introduce legislation requiring more.

“Unfortunately, it’s been a month, and we’ve been asking for them since day one,” he said.

Homeless advocates and residents worry that flushing within shared bathrooms could spread the coronavirus through the sprayed droplets.

Further, there aren’t nearly enough toilets, not only for residents unsheltered but also for those in SROs, where sometimes a dozen or more rooms on a floor will share one toilet and one shower, Friedenbach said.

Meanwhile, shelters are turning residents away to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, meaning many can’t find a place for refuge, and those without tents get drenched when it rains.

“Last night I was soaking ass wet,” said a man without a tent in the Tenderloin, who asked to be called Trouble. “A lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to be freezing ass cold at night and nowhere to go to warm up, to be dripping wet and nowhere to go to get dry … There needs to be somewhere we could go even if it’s just for a night, like if a church could just open up for a night or something.”

Getting a fresh set of clothing is also harder than before with the closure of Goodwill stores.

All of this during the elimination of the vast majority of Muni bus lines, the regular mode of transportation for unhoused residents, according to Chelsea Crumpler, an outreach coordinator for the Coalition on Homelessness.

“So now the bus lines that are working are packed to the rim in regular commute times,” she said. “It’s putting health workers, essential workers and homeless people at a much higher risk now because they don’t have any other transportation.”

Rodney Conway, who lives in a tent in the Mission, has found a silver lining in the compassion from others towards him in his neighborhood. One resident allows him to use their electrical outlet. Passersby will share water bottles and food.

Still, the closure of a nearby playground Parque Niños Unidos means he’ll take a half-mile walk to General Hospital to use the restroom. But overall, he looks at the glass half full.

“I think the homeless people are very resourceful. Let me make that very clear. You shut all the stores down, they’ll be able to do something,” Conway said. “(But) when it comes to being sick in any provision of care, that’s a different story. Very hard to get.”

dhorowitz@sfexaminer.com

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