Already normalized by COVID-19 “shelter in place” conditions that were prompted by the pandemic, housed and unhoused San Franciscans alike found themselves beset by a curfew that Mayor London Breed imposed on City residents for five nights from May 31 through June 4.
Through demonstrations and vocal outcry, community members rebuked the City’s response to nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd and countless African Americans slain by police officers as part of the nation’s systemic and social racism. The curfew was from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Though unhoused people were exempt under the mayor’s curfew and shelter in place orders, many still reported harassment from police who disproportionately enforce social distancing and move-along orders on unsheltered people against federal guidelines.
As of publication, the City of San Francisco has placed 1,223 homeless people who are 60 or older and/or with existing health conditions into 1,452 rooms set aside for that subgroup. Last month, Mayor Breed adamantly refused to implement the Board of Supervisors’ ordinance requiring her to open 8,250 vacant hotel rooms to unhoused San Franciscans.
At the same time, the City sanctioned “safe sleeping villages” where dozens of people stay in tents in the Civic Center and Upper Haight areas, while rough sleepers, a term for people who sleep outside, beyond these camps risk penalties for performing the life-sustaining act of rest.
Since the City instituted this “new normal,” the Coalition on Homelessness and its paper, the Street Sheet, has been collecting stories that would otherwise get buried amid rapidly changing developments throughout the 24/7 news cycle. The Coalition has been reaching out to people staying in encampments, shelters and hotels. As part of its COVID-19 coverage, Street Sheet reports their stories.
‘PERMISSION TO BE HERE’ – TORO
The reduced enforcement of so-called “quality of life” laws and City workers’ seizure of unhoused people’s property is one blessing that Toro Castano can count. A former museum worker, Castano is something of a community leader among the 20 residents of about a dozen tents outside a public library branch in the Castro District. He checks in with his encamped neighbors and, whenever possible, advocates for them.
The response to street homelessness has largely been marked by law enforcement ordering unhoused folks to move along. Castano, who was ticketed three times under an anti-camping ordinance, has been holding off the displacement of his fellow villagers — or at least ensuring that displacement is just temporary.
“Sometimes we resist (in moving along),” he said. “And (the cops) say ‘OK,” or they make us leave,” only to return shortly thereafter.
Policing near 16th and Market streets is under the jurisdiction of the Mission station, and Castano pointed out how unpredictable officers are when he comes in contact with them. There are two different crews at that station, he said, and some officers act nicer toward him than others, depending on who is working which shift.
Last month, a patrol officer slashed tents in the area “out of pure vindictiveness” and another cop took away his clothes, Castano said. But enforcement has slowed down because of the pandemic.
“The shelter in place has given us permission to be out here, otherwise it was just cat and mouse,” he said.
Catano hasn’t been tested for the coronavirus yet, because “there hasn’t been the urgency.” Nearby, a handwashing station and a Pit Stop bathroom is available for hygiene. People drop off food donations. The Homeless Outreach Team also checks in with him, and if he needs medical treatment, “I know I can go to the Tom Waddell (clinic) or SF General.”
‘THERE’S A LOT OF PARANOIA’ – JOSHUA
Joshua Owens’ journey to Royal Pacific Motor Inn in Chinatown included stops at a drug rehab facility and a hospital emergency room. His impression on that course sounds like a scene from a film noir or a spy novel.
Owens, 45, is a harm reduction advocate who does outreach for the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes Street Sheet. He also worked at GLIDE as part of the End Hep C Initiative, as well as the Needle Exchange on Sixth Street.
Earlier this year, Owens relapsed and checked into a Walden House facility on Treasure Island. On May 10, he spent over an hour in the shower, suffering from cold sweats, migraines and vomiting. He feared having COVID-19 symptoms. But Walden staff accused him of using and ordered, “Gimme the dope.” They immediately kicked him out without any protest from Owens.
“I was sick and in no shape for a physical or verbal altercation,” he said.
Delirious and occasionally passing out, Owens somehow made his way to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and got tested. Several hours later, hospital staff asked him if he wanted to go to a quarantine hotel. He accepted, though he was afraid of being disappeared.
“It’s scary coming here, especially for people using on the street and with mental health issues, there’s a lot of paranoia,” Owens said. “I didn’t know if I was being taken to a black site.”
He added, “There are these things running in your head when they put you in the van and they take you there.”
The man who drove Owens in the van to the Royal Pacific didn’t tell him where they were going; he didn’t even want Owens to so much as breathe near him, fearing infection.
Once Owens arrived, nobody else was volunteering him any information, so he had to grill the hotel employees on what he could expect.
“Ninety-five percent of everything I know is through my own questions,” he said. When his questions were answered, all worries were set aside. “Fortunately those fears were completely ungrounded.”
Owens got a blood oxygen test on his finger; though the results aren’t in yet, he hasn’t been feeling sick since, and gets temperature checks daily. Staff deliver meals to him, as well as cigarette rations.
So far, Owens is satisfied with his accommodations at the Royal Pacific, which opened as a tourist hotel during the 1960s motor inn craze. The hotel advertises rooms with large beds, pull-out sofas and private bathrooms — comforts most homeless people don’t enjoy when checking into single-room occupancy hotels.
“It’s the kind of room when if you’re homeless, you try to scrounge some money and get inside,” he said. “The food is good, they give you coffee. It’s clean, no bugs — not like an SRO. It’s like I paid for a weekend at the Days Inn.”
As Street Sheet interviewed Owens, news of the death of Ian Carrier — a friend of Owens — made headlines. Carrier was a 36-year-old unhoused person who was found dead on a Tenderloin sidewalk one day after being discharged from the UC San Francisco hospital. Owens laments that no one at the hospital could find a hotel where Carrier could rest and recuperate.
“Ian was a friend, and the system failed him,” he said. “I wish they had an opportunity for him as I had here.”
‘YOU DON’T GET A KEY’ – TENECIA
For two months, Tenecia Gippson has been staying at the Hotel Whitcomb on Market and Eighth streets. She got the room through the City-run Medical Respite and Sobering Center, just one block away on Mission and Eighth, where she was recovering from a stroke.
Like many who shared their shelter in place hotel stories with Street Sheet, Gippson has mostly found her hotel stay to be positive. She has her meals delivered three times daily and her meds refilled promptly when they run out. Nurses visit her three times a week, and medical professionals are on site — bonuses for someone like Gippson, whose bad knees require her to move around in a wheelchair and with a cane.
Caregivers from City-contracted Homebridge come in and clean the rooms, and Gippson enjoys conversations with them as they keep house, she said.
Each day, Gippson goes to her daughter’s place, looks after her granddaughter and returns by the hotel’s 10 p.m. check-in. But one day, medical bureaucracy at the hotel almost blocked Gippson from her babysitting gig. She had already tested negative and was on her way to her granddaughter’s. A clerk told her, “It says right here on the paper that you’re quarantined.” Gippson told the clerk to confirm with her nurse. It was all cleared up quickly with a phone call, though she has yet to receive documented proof of her diagnosis.
Other things are also amiss: “The only thing is, you don’t get a key to your own room,” Gippson said. Under most circumstances, guests are given keys at check-in and can freely come and go.
The Whitcomb also doesn’t provide its shelter-in-place guests with refrigerators or microwaves, common amenities found even in a Travelodge. Apparently, the hotel removed them as it became a quarantine hotel, Gippson noted. “They said they didn’t want them there because we’d mess them up,” she said. When she was served a burger for dinner, she discovered the patty was pink on the inside and had to ask staff to heat it up.
It’s not as if the Whitcomb can’t afford the upkeep: its website advertises historic landmark status, an artisanal deli, a cocktail bar serving locally sourced beverages and an immersive theater venue that simulates Parisian can-can clubs of the 1890s.
When Mayor London Breed declared a citywide curfew, Gippson faced a curtailing of her child care duties, as well as an increased police presence on the streets — something African Americans like her have uncomfortably navigated since slavery days.
“It’s terrible because every day I go out to babysit my granddaughter, and I don’t get out until 8 p.m.,” she said. “All I see is cops on motorcycles and SUVs. I’ve seen them before, but not like this!”
‘NEVER BEEN TREATED THIS NICELY’ – CARRIE
Carrie Ann Moon and her boyfriend were among the first people to be moved out of the Division Street navigation center in April when the first COVID-19 case among its sheltered homeless population was found there.
Now that Moon and her partner are enjoying comfort at the Americania Hotel in South of Market, they don’t know where they’ll go after their stay ends.
“I’m pretty shocked that, because of the pandemic, the people are nice to us — maybe it’s because of the different type of people working here, but they’ve treated us like regular people staying here,” she said.
Moon, 46, has been living unhoused in San Francisco since 2012. She lived in a tent under the Central Freeway onramp, just 500 feet away from Division Circle. Navigation centers are famous for allowing people to move in “the three P’s” — pets, partners and possessions. Moon and her boyfriend’s entry was expedited within three days of contacting a caseworker from Episcopal Community Services, and they moved their camping gear there.
The stretch where Moon lived has been targeted by encampment sweeps led by San Francisco police and Public Works. The City used to sweep encampments there every day, with cops supervising the operations and Public Works staff illegally disposing people’s survival gear and prized possessions.
But since the pandemic, sweeps occur just once or twice a week, Moon said.
“It was unpredictable. You never know when (the cops) are in the mood to harass us, like 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.,” she said. “Every time I heard the ‘beep beep’ of the DPW truck, I cried.”
Pre-COVID-19, Moon was a high priority for housing because of her chronic homelessness and her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. She gets Social Security Disability Insurance, but the $1,800 maximum payment is only half of San Francisco market rental rates.
Her hotel is staffed with social workers and mental health professionals. Moon already has her own psychiatrist, with whom she keeps appointments by phone. For the first two weeks, she and her boyfriend were quarantined when he got a tooth infection. He was treated with antibiotics.
A quick look at the Americania’s website shows nightly rates for two people ranging from $111 to $230. Conveniences in each room include a coffee/tea maker, flat-screen TV, internet access, an iron and ironing board and an in-room safe. But like the Hotel Whitcomb, there’s no place in the rooms to store or cook food.
Moon is waiting to hear from her caseworker. Initially, City workers at the hotel suggested the couple go to the pop-up shelter at the Moscone Center, but reports of the congregate shelter’s unsuitable conditions forced those plans to be scrapped.
“We’re still waiting for (the caseworker) to call us back, but if our only option is Moscone Center, we are probably just going to get a tent and stay outside,” she said.
Still, the hotel stay has been a welcome reprieve from the harshness of street life.
“As homeless people we have not been treated this good for years,” Moon said. “We usually get treated like crap … I’ve never been treated this nicely. Normally, they’re doing everything to bug us.”