The Beat Of The Street

What has changed for unhoused San Franciscans in the last year, and what hasn’t

This last year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard. There has been a lot to adjust to, because there are not very many positive resources in San Francisco due to our City leaders and how our mayor is running things. 

One thing that has changed in a negative way is that the City has been very hands-off when it comes to addressing homelessness. I mean the City is not giving people anything besides harassment, so people are learning to use their environment to survive. That is creating even more distance between unhoused folks and City leaders, so it will be harder for anyone to even try to ask for any kind of help when the city does get back to normal. 

City leaders are digging a hole for themselves by not taking care of folks that are unhoused during this pandemic. It just showed even more that the City has no heart, and it’s sad. It’s heartbreaking for me, because people depend on their City and they want their City to take care of them but they really aren’t getting the support they need. 

Rather than offering services, what they have done is they have intensified encampment sweeps. So what that means is that at night time or just whenever it rains? Boom. They come sweeping people and taking everything they have. They are being more aggressive, and then of course folks don’t really have any place to go again. Some people got lucky and got into Shelter-In-Place (SIP) hotels, which is good. I know several people who were in encampments who got placed in the hotels, so now they are inside and waiting to get permanent housing. But the majority of people are just getting shuffled around and it’s really been business as usual. 

The city should have just stopped the sweeps. For a few months they did, and people outside got to rest. We got to actually be normal for a second without having to worry every five seconds about being harassed by the police or DPW. And after a few months, because there are no bathrooms and no water sources for people out on the streets in San Francisco, the City finally put out some spigots and some port-a-potties. But the problem is that they later take them away. One big thing that they should have done is provided more healthy clean water, more places for people to use the restroom so that they don’t have to go in Mr. Businessman’s parking lot. But of course the City missed the ball on that because they keep giving a few little things to the unhoused — the bathrooms, the water — that are essential to survive, and then they yank them away. So people out here really have nothing stable to rely on. If you want to help make things better, leave these resources there so people can brush their teeth, wash their bodies, give their pets some water, and get themselves some water, cuz we need that to survive. 

The City should also be a little bit more helpful; it should make the services that it offers more real. I mean, the services are real, but no one can really access them. The City really needed to do more community outreach; City leaders should have been out canvassing the streets, talking to people, getting to know what they need — but that just wasn’t done. Our leaders really should put in the work to learn about what’s going on in their community. So those are things that stand out to me; I think the City did a really poor job of taking care of its residents.

But of course there’s always a little bit of positive even in the worst-case scenarios, and I always try to see the positive. It’s hard when I’m presented with so much negativity, but I always can find the positive, because otherwise you can’t go on existing, and I wouldn’t be smiling like I do. 

One thing that I have noticed is that people in the neighborhoods who live in houses are actually coming out and getting to know some of their unhoused neighbors, starting to become allies. That’s huge, because now when the City does sweeps, that neighbor will come out and be like, “Hey! What are you doing to John?” and start filming. And that’s a positive shift I’ve seen — we now have neighbors helping neighbors — because before there was just a lot more separation. The City seems like it wants unhoused people to not have allies or anyone to help them, so it’s inspiring to see so much neighborly love. Unhoused folks are your neighbors, and you are their neighbor, so I’ve really noticed that shift, because those folks would never normally give a f***. It’s nice to see that when they see something happening, when they see someone’s stuff getting thrown away, they are going to ask and they are going to video and it’s amazing to me that people are doing that.

I’ve had a lot of folks want to know how to get involved! People have come and asked me or I got a phone call from so and so to talk to someone who wants to learn about how to better help their community. On more than several occasions I’ve taken people on these little encampment walks to get an understanding of what is happening in our communities, and that is pretty badass to me, too, because it’s showing that people are listening, people are caring. If the City won’t come outside and help people, then we have to come together as a community. People are doing that on their own; they’re seeking me out, or the Coalition on Homelessness, to find out what they can do to make this better. 

Another huge positive is that a few of the folks that have been out here on the streets for years are now in permanent housing, and more than a few — at least fifteen that I know of — are now in SIP hotels. Some of these folks are inside for the first time in 10 or 15 years, and it is amazing to me that they are inside now and not having to deal with everything out here, and that they are happy. I visit the hotels and check up on people and it’s amazing to see them living there, living normally and being inside, because I know how they lived before, and they seem so much happier having a place that is stable and secure. And that makes me smile, it really makes me happy, because all I ever wanted is for people to be treated fairly and to be safe. And for a lot of people this is the first time they have felt safe in almost half their life, and so to give that to people is something amazing. That’s why we need permanent housing, so that we can get folks off the street so that they can feel that same way.

This last year has been a test for all of us. It has tested us at our weakest moments, at our most heartbreaking moments. I think people learned a lot about themselves, about what they can go through, what makes their heart beat, or what makes them angry. It seems like now people are more vocal when they see something unfair. So this last year has really made a lot of us think about things we never thought about before. And one thing that I want to say is this: Remember the things you learned and the things that you saw. Never forget how this last year affected you. If you spent this last year inside your house, and you’ve been impacted during this time, just imagine if you weren’t housed. Imagine what this last year would have been like for you if you were on the street. Just put yourself in someone else’s shoes for like 30 seconds. What would that be like? And then take those feelings and all that emotion and go do something about it for the people who are on the street. Just be part of your community, because we’re all humans, we’re all San Francisco residents, and we need each other, because if our City government is not helping us then we need to help each other. I want that neighborly love to continue; be positive, smile at people when you walk by, just basically don’t forget we still exist, and we exist amongst each other, so we need to take care of each other. This last year, with the masks, the COVID pandemic, this whole thing is such a weird thing to go through, so let’s not just forget that it happened and let us not forget where we want to go in the future. And don’t let such f*cked up sh*t happen to your neighbors. If this last year taught anything to anyone, just don’t forget it. 

This was a really long year for me. My work hasn’t changed at all. I’m still doing all this stuff because my city doesn’t take the time to take care of its people, so I’ve been riding from one side of the city to the other. Sometimes I wish that I had a little bit of help going out there. I mean, there were nights I didn’t sleep because I was riding across the City going to fix people because they didn’t want to go to the hospital. Unhoused folks didn’t want to go to the hospital because they were worried they would get the virus, which they probably would have. So instead, most unhoused folks are just going to stay put and they’re going to suffer and they’re not going to get medical attention. So I was so busy, so busy, so busy, but even when I was the most tired I still kept riding my bike, I still kept pushing because the City lets people down all the time and I wanted folks to know that if I say I’m going to be there, I will be there. Sometimes I’m sore, I ache and I just want to lay down, but I can’t, and I wish that the City could feel that, so that it would know not to give up — give up on people that live in San Francisco, pandemic or not — and just take care of people.