Cold Weather Protocol Leaves San Franciscans Shivering and Unsheltered

It’s winter in San Francisco again. It gets colder and wetter than usual. This is the time of year in which many more people grow very concerned about our unhoused neighbors being out in the weather. 

I understand the concern. Pneumonia, trench foot or other illnesses caused by exposure to the weather are serious. The increased risk to health warrants a more serious policy response. 

But on another level, I wonder about how arbitrary it can be for us to draw a line between suffering homelessness in temperate weather and suffering it in cold and wet weather — as if the crisis of having thousands of people living on the streets and sidewalks in a city seven miles-wide was not serious enough to merit all the response we can afford year-round. It isn’t just the wet and cold weather that kills. People die year-round on the streets. These are preventable deaths. This is to say nothing of heat waves, which are increasingly common in this age of changing climate, and can rapidly become dangerous for people living on the streets.

The increased media attention and policy response to homelessness in cold and wet weather is appreciated, nonetheless. The weather complicates things for people on the street. In the summer, when Public Works employees soak unhoused neighbors belongings while “cleaning,” a bag full of clothes might be wet for a day or two. When this happens just before a storm, as it did in early December to dozens of people living on Willow and other Tenderloin streets, belongings will be wet for days. Imagine not having any dry clothes for days while you have to sleep in a tent, under a tarp or simply in a blanket on the sidewalk.

The City of San Francisco makes additional shelter available in the winter to help with these conditions. This year, the Interfaith Winter Shelter Program has made up to 100 additional beds per month available for individual men experiencing homelessness. During certain cold and wet weather conditions, the city had recently added 75 additional mats in the year-round  shelter system to move people indoors. These extra mats will be available whenever the weather gets bad enough. But when does “bad enough” happen, and how are people supposed to know about it?

This and other concerns on the city’s cold and wet weather response were shared by homeless advocates, community organizations, and homeless people themselves, including the Coalition on Homelessness. Advocates have met in the last year with District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and officials in the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), aiming to improve San Francisco’s response to wet and cold weather.

Advocates had asked HSH to change or improve several specific aspects of their policy. They were asked to simplify and broaden their criteria for triggering an inclement weather response; provide funding to keep all shelters open 24/7 during inclement weather; allow unhoused neighbors to go directly to shelters in order to secure a bed during inclement weather; expand the number of winter shelter mats; expand the number of indoor spaces available to shelter people; and improve the quality of their communications regarding inclement weather responses.

HSH officials responded to advocates’ concerns by agreeing to consider changing the criteria to trigger an inclement weather response. They also agreed to provide more funding for emergency staff to keep shelters open 24 hours during bad weather. HSH officials hesitated to allow people direct access to shelters in inclement weather, citing their preference for a reservation system because they would like to avoid vulnerable individuals traveling in bad weather to get to shelters that may already be full. Advocates have pushed back on this, citing the feedback from unhoused neighbors and providers that the reservation system can confuse many people and discourages them from successfully seeking shelter. Advocates also point out that the additional shelter mats during a weather response don’t get filled to capacity to begin with due to the baffling reservation process and inadequate communication about the expanded shelter.

Getting a shelter bed in general can be difficult and complicated. People in need are told to call 311 to get a shelter bed, but if they call before 8 p.m., 311 agents advise callers to try again after 8 p.m. This isn’t something that helps people get out of the rain and into shelter when they need it. How do people access those additional shelter mats that become available in an inclement weather response? Before writing this article, I spent hours trying to learn about our weather response and what options are available to people. And even as this goes to press, I still can’t say that I understand. What is clear that there is an abundance of need, but a lack of beds and a failure by the city to make the information about expanded services available to those who need them.