Coronavirus Hits San Francisco: How Poor and Homeless People are Surviving

Project Homeless Connect planned to host their regular homelessness services fair that centralizes services for unhoused people to access on March 4th. But two days before the date, the group sent out an email alerting participants and providers that the fair was cancelled, on the recommendation of the Department of Public Health (DPH). Health officials were gearing up for Coronavirus to hit the city, and bringing together thousands of providers and volunteers and unhoused people could pose a risk to the health of all in attendance. The same day, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in San Francisco, saying that it is only a matter of time before the virus hits San Francisco.

Since then, the very real threat posed by this new epidemic has become more clear, resulting in a ban on all large social gatherings over 1,000 people within San Francisco and many investments and recommendations coming from the city level. The public health recommendations put out by the Department of Public Health encourage regular handwashing, use of hand sanitizer, and staying home when sick. But those recommendations are close to impossible for homeless folks to follow given the lack of public restrooms and the lack of housing to isolate oneself. 

As San Francisco begins to weather the coming epidemic, homeless people stand at great risk, not only of contracting the virus, but of being a convenient scapegoat to take attention off the real failures in the city’s emergency response. That San Francisco has failed to provide housing to all of its residents means that unhoused people are unable to avoid contact with infected individuals, and have limited access to hygiene and hand-washing. Additionally, many unhoused people have weakened immune systems because of exposure to the elements, sleep deprivation, and the extreme stress caused by homelessness. 

It is cruel at any time to conduct encampment sweeps in a purportedly progressive city with upwards of 1,000 people languishing on the waitlist for shelter. Doing so in the midst of a State of Emergency as we wait for an inevitable epidemic to hit is unconscionable. And yet homeless people are still reporting being targeted by encampment sweeps led by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and San Francisco Public Works. These sweeps deprive already vulnerable people of essential medications, survival gear, and stability needed to minimize risk and keep immune systems fortified.

“It upsets me to the fullest that they are still doing sweeps because we’re in a state of emergency but DPW and SFPD have got no heart for the individuals who don’t have nowhere else to go,” said Shyhyene Brown, who lives in an SRO and spend a lot of her time working with homeless people in encampments. “They don’t care about nothing but themselves and their pockets, even if that means sweeping us off the streets. It’s just crazy.” 

Local shelters and SROs centralize people who are already at risk, which could lead to exposure for residents. This week Mayor Breed announced $5 million in emergency funding to keep shelters and Navigation Centers open 24/7, expand meal service in shelters and SROs, and hire workers to deep-clean the shelters, supportive housing buildings, and SROs. The money will also be used to keep shelters, including Navigation Centers, open 24/7. 

In Washington state, King County is finalizing a purchase of a motel that would house Coronavirus patients who are unable to self-isolate due to their lack of housing, and is also bringing in modular units from elsewhere for emergency shelter. They are also encouraging local shelters to spread information about best practices and to ensure that beds are spaced enough to minimize exposure to the virus. San Francisco announced that similarly it will be offering space in RVs for anyone who tests positive or has been exposed to the virus who cannot self-quarantine because they are in an SRO or are homeless. 

The city is making a good effort to prepare, but there are more steps that need to be taken to ensure that homeless people can stay safe during this crisis and going forward. In a city with so much concentrated wealth, homelessness should not be taken as a given. We have to push collectively to house the thousands of people that are homeless because of federal disinvestment and local negligence. That Mayor Breed is preparing to compromise on Proposition C, a ballot initiative that won a majority of voter support last year that marks $300 million for homeless housing, underscores her betrayal of homeless people when folks are most vulnerable. 

It has become clear that containment is no longer a possibility as almost two dozen cases have now been documented locally, as of press time. The San Francisco Unified School District has cancelled classes for the next three weeks to prevent spread, and many organizations are encouraging staff to work from home. The goal right now is to “flatten the curve” so that the number of cases doesn’t spike all at once, but is staggered so as not to deplete resources in hospitals and other institutions. 

Right now organizers and marginalized people are scrambling to identify the many needs of impacted people who will lose income and jobs, who lack adequate health care in jails and detention centers, who may face eviction if they can’t make rent. In order to have a just and equitable response to this crisis, we need to find ways to center the needs and contributions of impacted people. 

“I feel like the No. 1 thing being left out of the narrative is the people who will be impacted the most: seniors and people with preexisting health conditions,” said Zach, a disability justice advocate and Street Sheet contributor. “It’s a repeat of what we’ve seen with the wildfires and other disasters, where people with disabilities and seniors are seen as collateral damage, and our lives are seen as not as valuable. Those of us who are actually dying in higher numbers are not being prioritized, even though everything indicates that we should be.”

Zach says that one of the main concerns he has is getting access to essentials like hand sanitizer that would help him stay safe during this crisis, because able-bodied people have been stockpiling resources that disabled people and chronically ill people desperately need. He recommends that the City of San Francisco work with major distributors to set aside some of those resources and distribute them to folks who need them, especially to disabled homeless folks in encampments and shelters. But he also says we need to look to each other for support right now and not wait for city officials to take appropriate action. 

“We have a situation where, like in so many other crises, we’re told to trust the experts and the institutions, and of course, they have access to all the important medical data and infrastructure, he said. “However we know from experience, both from our everyday experiences and from historical epidemics, that these institutions fail us regularly. And so the question is how do we create grassroots responses, and how do we unify to protect ourselves while also being critical of the so-called leaders we’re expected to trust without question.”

As we wait for a more thorough federal and local response to the Coronavirus outbreak, Shyhene Brown talks about steps homeless people can take to prevent spreading and contracting the virus. 

“To be honest with you, wash your hands, take care of your necessary hygiene. Drink plenty of fluids,” Brown said. “The city needs to go and teach us what this virus is and how we as citizens of the USA can better help one another to stay healthy. And I feel that they already know, get vaccinated, get your flu shot. But they need to tell us more about it, and how we can combat it.”

These steps can help prevent the spread of the virus. And just as importantly, we need to be taking care of ourselves so we can stay mentally and physically strong during a very challenging time. Zach puts it well:

“One of the best things we can do moving forward is to listen to people with chronic health problems. We are the leaders in these situations, and not only do we need to be protected, we need to be listened to. And one of the things we’ve learned to do for our own survival is what’s called radical self care. And that means countering the negative internal dialogue in our heads, and the fear, with powerful acts of compassion and self love. Now is the time to pick up that art project you’ve been putting on hold, listen to that album that you haven’t had time to listen to, and cook the good food that you feel like has been waiting in the fridge too long. Now is the time to treat yourself.”