Outreach Diary — Our system isn’t ‘trauma-informed’… it’s causing trauma

I’ve been out on the street and with folks in encampments a bunch lately, but I haven’t really been writing about it. Part of the reason I haven’t been writing is because by the end of the day I’m usually still trying to get through a ton of work or my brain is just complete mush. I’m really behind on emails and returning phone calls, so sorry if you’ve reached out and I haven’t gotten back to you. This work is fast paced and stressful in general, but under COVID it’s all that on steroids. I don’t even know where to start to fill folks in … there is SO much!

I’ll start by saying that when it comes to COVID and homelessness EVERYTHING is so much harder! It’s harder to get resources for folks… the system under non-COVID times is challenging enough, but this is a whole new level. It’s harder for folks who are forced to sleep on the street to meet their basic needs. Resources like the library and drop-ins are closed or extremely limited. It’s tough finding a way to keep one’s phone charged… it’s tough finding a bathroom … it’s tough finding a way to keep one’s hands clean. The issue I hear more and more people talking about is how difficult it is for them to find access to a shower … folks are desperate to simply have the opportunity to get clean.

On a daily basis I am encountering people who are over 60 and/or vulnerable who have not gotten into a hotel room yet. I’m still completely blown away by how hard we had to advocate to get a 70-year old man who has one leg and requires a wheelchair for mobility into a hotel room. I know the system … I have connections … and yet it was still extremely difficult to get him help. Imagine how difficult it is for someone who doesn’t have folks advocating for them. Here is a link to a video of Cuba explaining his experience.

We have been encountering so many seniors and vulnerable people so this past weekend Christin Evans went out on the streets of the Tenderloin with a photographer to start the “Cuba Project”. She tweeted … “Yesterday, we started phase 2 of the ‘Cuba Project,’ which seeks to raise awareness by sharing photos, videos and the stories of people living on the street in San Francisco. All of the participants were eager to accept a hotel room so they could get a better night’s sleep. We spoke to 24 people yesterday. Most were POC, most were over 50 years old, and all had health concerns which put them at greater risk for complications from the COVID virus. Each shared their personal story.” You can check out the amazing stories and pictures here.

Like I said … everything is more challenging. Folks on the front line are all working extremely hard to help people and to get them to safety, but resources are limited (and hotel rooms sit empty). Everyone working on the front lines encounter people on a daily basis who they can’t help. It’s heartbreaking … it’s traumatic for everyone involved.

I keep hearing nonsense in the media and from people in power that they are trying to convince unhoused people to take hotel rooms, as if people are “service-resistant” and don’t want help. That is a load of bullshit. It’s always a load of bullshit, but even more so during this global pandemic. Some folks do have legitimate concerns about what’s being offered to them. They simply want to know what they are getting into … informed consent. People deserve to be informed and to make a choice based on what is best for them. We have been trying to help folks get answers.

We have handed out a lot of tents across the city and we don’t advocate that tents are the solution, but it’s at least providing minimal protection. The alternative is someone having to sleep hard on the ground with no protection at all. There have been some “safe sleep villages” (a.k.a. sanctioned encampments) created. Housing and hotels are what is actually needed, but I’ve been happy to hear people say they feel they are being treated really well in the encampments. Again, folks working on the front lines at these places are working really hard to make the best of a very tough situation. People on the front lines are faced to deal with decisions being made by people in power.

What keeps me up at night is the anticipation/anxiety about what’s going to happen on the streets in the near future … it’s going to get much more challenging. You see, the mayor and others are still obsessed with tents … they are obsessed with what they call “visible homelessness.” The City is even getting sued over this (by some people with no shame) … while we are in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC! The visibility of homeless people isn’t the issue, the issue is the lack of housing and resources. Hiding “visible homelessness” is just a facade … it’s a lie. It hurts people too.

I’m concerned about the role of law enforcement in response to homelessness. The mayor may make public statements about taking SFPD out of the homeless response network, but I’ll believe it when I see it. SFPD is the lead responder to street homelessness… that’s just the reality of the situation. If the City continues to focus on a system driven by complaints and tents, instead of the needs of the most vulnerable in our community, then it will be the same old story of Sweeps and taking people’s belongings and telling them to “move along”.

Our system isn’t “trauma informed”… it’s causing trauma.
When the Sweeps really start again I will be regularly writing posts detailing what’s happening… like I did during the Super Bowl Sweeps. I’m afraid the City will be providing a lot of material to be writing about. It’s just what they do.

Ugh, I guess this post is a bit bleak. Well, that’s just how I’m seeing things at the moment … it’s pretty heavy and the issue the City created on the streets is totally crazy. It’s unbelievable that we are this far into a global pandemic and so few emergency resources have been made available.

No matter how challenging things get, it’s the struggle I want to be a part of because every single person who is forced to sleep on our streets has value and is worth fighting for.