2020 in the Rear-View: Unhoused, Sheltered in Place

Briefly in 2020, it wasn’t always “all COVID, all the time.”

That was for about two and a half months into the new year.

The first year into a new decade almost seems like eons ago, but early 2020, at one point, is where homelessness in San Francisco and the U.S. might have turned a corner — starting as early as December 2019.

Then, the Martin v. Boise case in Idaho was upheld when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the city of Boise’s appeal of the U.S. 9th Circuit’s decision on the city’s urban camping ban. The federal appeals court found that enforcing anti-homeless ordinances without providing services amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, making the law unconstitutional.

In January, the director of San Francisco Public Works, the City agency that has been at the forefront of encampment evictions and the improper seizure of residents’ property, was arrested by federal investigators in connection with a wide-ranging bribery scandal. The ensuing complaint also alleged that Mohammed Nuru, who has since resigned, sought to fix City contracts for homeless bathroom trailers to benefit his co-indictee.

Meanwhile, Mayor London Breed’s administration started receiving demands to decriminalize homelessness on two separate fronts — homeless advocates and the City’s police commission. The newly formed Solutions Not Sweeps coalition sent Breed a list of demands, including abolishing the confiscation of homeless people’s property and towing the vehicles of people living in them, as well as leading with services rather than enforcement. The SNS coalition also rallied in front of City Hall while performing a mock sweep of people into jail as a bit of street theater.

Inside the more staid surroundings of a City Hall meeting room, the police commission also took action. On January 15, the panel — composed of political appointees — unanimously approved a resolution calling for a work group to drop the City’s default strategy of enforcement in favor of a more service-oriented approach.

Just when San Francisco was making headway, everything changed in March.

By then, the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, hit the North American continent. The first community transmission within San Francisco city limits was reported. California declared a state of emergency, and San Francisco along with five Bay Area counties issued a shelter-in-place order. Soon, a statewide stay-at-home order followed. But such dictates mean nothing to people with a home in which to stay. Exempted from these orders, unsheltered people remained on the streets.

Shelter clients with ongoing reservations saw their stays extended, but the City shut down the 1,000-plus person long waitlist for a 90-day bed. Waitlisted people were turned away and joined some 8,000 San Franciscans with no place to rest, self-isolate or wash their hands during a public health emergency.

Other service providers found workarounds in this new time of “social distancing”: GLIDE and St. Anthony’s started serving meals in packages. As a safety measure, the Coalition on Homelessness reduced its operating hours and in-office complement. Its bimonthly newspaper, Street Sheet, stopped printing and ran exclusively online until July. With the dwindling income of vendors from paper sales, Street Sheet opened a GoFundMe campaign offering an economic stimulus in the form of vendor grants.

Meanwhile, mutual aid networks formed and started distributing hand sanitizers and face masks to unhoused people. 

Yet, the question remained: how does one shelter in place without a place to shelter in? The pandemic left at least 30 hotels that weren’t renting out rooms with 30,000 vacancies. Under the City charter, either the mayor or the county’s health officer is legally empowered to commandeer these rooms — or any privately held property — in a public health emergency. Those people, respectively, are London Breed and Tomás Aragón.

And this is where the City faltered: rather than opening rooms to unhoused San Franciscans, the City looked to various sites, such as the Moscone Center, as large-scale shelters. Repeatedly, Mayor Breed maintained that opening vacant hotel rooms was unworkable, but her reasons for this supposed infeasibility kept changing: homeless people would be unwilling to move indoors, their substance use and mental health issues would make them problem guests, the City couldn’t afford lodging and support services for them all, even with reimbursement of state and federal monies.

By April, the City started getting pushback, so it contracted about 1,000 rooms, but reserved them only for people who were being tested for the coronavirus, had tested positive or were recovering from it. At that point, it filled only 123 rooms. The City also defined people at risk of contracting the virus as “vulnerables,” meaning people aged 60 and above or people with existing health conditions.

In pandemic times, San Francisco’s usual approach of moving its unsheltered homeless population from one place to another ran contrary to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The CDC recommended allowing people to remain in encampments if no individual housing options are available. The federal public health agency also advised against clearing encampments, lest the inhabitants lose their connection with service providers and become even more susceptible to the virus. In such cases, the CDC suggested that tents be spaced at least 12 feet apart from one another and have access to proper sanitation.

And as long as the City wasn’t immediately offering hotel rooms to people living outdoors, the Coalition and the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter ratcheted up tent distribution so that they could at least establish their own personal space. Outreachers from the Coalition also provided tent dwellers with signs reading, “I will gladly exchange my tent for a hotel room.”

However, the City had other plans. It opened a mega-shelter at Moscone Center West, across the street from its newly installed emergency center. A tipster told Street Sheet that 390 mats — not beds — were laid out with no partitions or handwashing stations available. Less than 24 hours after Street Sheet broke the story, the City scrapped its plans to congregate unhoused people at the event center. However, in an email to Street Sheet, Human Services Agency director Trent Rhorer wrote: “the City will NOT be renting to house unsheltered homeless” who are COVID-negative or not part of the vulnerable population because it wasn’t “fiscally prudent.”

So, the City made a choice to prioritize “vulnerables” because they were most at risk of dying from COVID if they contracted it. But shelter residents who don’t fit the City’s definition of “vulnerable” were also at risk, and they were in settings where sleeping quarters are less than 6 feet apart — CDC’s recommendation of social distance — making the risk even greater.

Ultimately, it took numerous positive cases to move homeless people into hotels. Outbreaks occurred at the Multi-Service Center South — the City’s largest shelter — affecting 100 clients and staff. MSC South clients testing negative were moved into hotels, while the shelter repurposed itself as an auxiliary medical facility for positives. 

Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the Department of Public Health, told The Guardian the virus would naturally spread among unhoused people. “Outbreaks like these are bound to happen,” he said. “This is how coronavirus spreads. Our goal is to slow the spread down and mitigate the bad outcomes we see with the virus.”

Frustrated by Mayor Breed’s sluggishness in commandeering hotels, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance to open 7,200 hotel rooms to homeless people, with a 12-day deadline to start. But Breed refused to sign off on it, and more importantly, was not willing to disburse funds for this legislation. It’s too hard, she said in an April 25 address.

“That is not the reality of what we as a city can do,” she said. “Every decision we make, everything we do is going to be based on what is reality.”

The other public servant who could have fast-tracked an emergency order appeared before the supervisors at a May 12 hearing. Health Officer Tomás Aragón told them that the City hadn’t reached a critical point where commandeering hotels would be necessary. He said that in consulting with the City Attorney’s office, “we’d have to show we had exhausted all resources” before then. 

But a City Attorney’s office memo shows that the health officer has that authority to commandeer in a public health emergency. He also dodged a direct question from the Board of Supervisors — a body that appoints the Health Officer, not the mayor — as to why he hadn’t issued the order. “That’s all I’m prepared to say,” he said.

Some people couldn’t wait for the City to lodge homeless people; St. Anthony Foundation, Hospitality House and even staff from Supervisor Dean Preston’s office, with the Providence Foundation, opened up their wallets to put them up in rooms.

On the medical front, testing sites sprouted, mostly in outdoor locations for social distance purposes. Unidos en Salud/United in Health operated in underserved neighborhoods, such as the Mission, Sunnydale and Bayview. Verily, a company owned by a corporate parent of Google, required people at its Tenderloin site to use a Gmail account or a smartphone to access test results, posing problems for people with little or no technology access and privacy concerns. The City ended its contract with the company seven months later.

Literally driving in their point, activists and medical students rode in socially distanced car caravans outside Moscone Center, City Hall and Alamo Square urging the City to shelter unhoused people in hotels. The students also made the same demand at an action outside Mayor Breed’s house in the Lower Haight where they staged a die-in. 

Two unhoused women stayed in a vacant investment property for several hours on May Day, thanks to a newly formed activist organization called House the Bay. As part of a demonstration in the Castro District, they moved into the house until police arrested them and escorted them off the premises.

In May, as tents became more prevalent in the Tenderloin, the UC Hastings College of the Law and a merchants association sued the City to “clear the streets” and end what college chancellor David Faigman deemed “dangerous and illegal conditions.” It didn’t matter that clearing encampments went against CDC guidelines. Throughout the litigation, 27 Tenderloin-based organizations asked UC Hastings to sign a pledge and honor the human rights of the neighborhood’s unhoused residents, but the college refused.

The City and UC Hastings reached a settlement, which included the removal of 300 tents but no additional hotel placements, contrary to the City’s claims. Two months later, after hours of debate and public comment, the Board of Supervisors approved the settlement on a 7–4 vote. Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton voted in dissent.

The deal provided an impetus for merchants, neighborhood groups and housed residents to force the City’s hand. Businesses and housed residents on Larch Street also filed suit, demanding a camp be removed near the Opera Plaza. Marina District residents raised their hackles and pressed Public Works into clearing an RV settlement on Moulton Street, while Richmond District neighbors demanded the same for an encampment by the old Alexandria movie theater.

Also, a petition circulated among Hayes Valley merchants declaring the neighborhood a “tent-free zone” to the confusion of Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association members. Shortly thereafter, an encampment on Octavia Boulevard was swept.

As a way to mitigate conditions at encampments, “safe sleeping villages” were established at Civic Center, Stanyan Street, South Van Ness Avenue and at a playground off Third Street in the Bayview District. As the City cordoned off the Civic Center area with unsightly fencing, the Stanyan Street village encountered animosity from neighborhood merchants and a bungled attempt at litigation from a neighborhood association.  

In a city where nearly one-third of its unhoused residents are Black, the Black Lives Matter movement carried added resonance. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were among the latest fatalities from police violence against Black people that spurred nationwide protests and calls to “de-fund the police.” San Francisco was no different. The City responded to this unrest — as other major metropolitan areas have — with curfews, added police presence and arrests.

The disproportionate policing of Black people, particularly unhoused ones, was the focus of a June 23 march from UC Hastings to the Tenderloin police station, where a phalanx of riot-geared police officers stood in front of the entrance and atop the station’s roof.

Queenandi XSheba, a Black woman born and raised in San Francisco, addressed the officers specifically: “You cannot criminalize people because they are houseless.”

Each December, a consortium of faith leaders from the San Francisco Night Ministry holds a candlelight vigil in honor of unhoused San Franciscans who died on the streets, in residential hotels or in other places where they might have been found in the past year. The ceremony includes a reading of the deceased’s names, and the number of names seem to increase each year. In 2019, approximately 275 names were called.

An early comparison of homeless deaths in the beginnings 2019 and 2020 suggests the number will rise this year. In June, the Department of Public Health estimated 125 homeless people had already died, over twice the rate of deaths in the same month of the previous year. The Night Ministry also projects a higher death toll this year. Responding to a query from Street Sheet, Rev. Valerie McEntee said, as of August 31, the coroner’s office already counted 200 deaths. “With that number, we believe the number will be much higher than last year by the time the coroner gives us the rest of the names and we hear from some of our other sources who also give us names we don’t get through the coroner,” she said.   

Some names sure to be read this year belong to Ronnie Goodman, Ian Carrier, Eric Michael Moren and Charles Davis. 

Goodman was an artist whose work appeared in Street Sheet, galleries and at numerous actions, including June’s march to the Tenderloin police station. He died in his tent in the Mission District in August. A memorial was held near the building where he camped.

Carrier’s death on the corner of Hyde and Eddy streets in April would have otherwise gone unnoticed in any other year. His purported COVID connection made it noteworthy, and his parents’ interview with the New York Times made it newsworthy. 

Carrier had been in and out of the UC San Francisco Parnassus Hospital for about two months. He checked in on Christmas Day with a severe cough and fever, and had to be put on a respirator. His chronic kidney problems — complicated by heroin use — required multiple hospitalizations. Before his final exit from UCSF, the hospital had no place where he could be released — no respite center, no hotel. Less than a day later, he died with his discharge papers still on him.

He must have died from COVID-19 undiagnosed, his family told the Times.

Moren’s death has been light on details thus far: police found his body burned to death at a South of Market alley on the morning of October 25 and were treating it as a suspicious death. Larry Ackerman, Moren’s ex-husband, said Moren operated his own housecleaning business before he became homeless. A memorial was held for him in his hometown in Ohio, Ackerman told the Bay Area Reporter.

Davis, a Street Sheet vendor, died at the Hotel Tilden in the Tenderloin on October 27. When announcing Davis’ death on Facebook, Rev. Victor Floyd of Calvary Presbyrterian Church said he took solace in knowing that Davis was sheltered and fed in a SIP hotel during his final days. The church set up a table for Davis to sell Street Sheets after Sunday services. He also served on the Stolen Belonging production team and actively campaigned for Proposition C in the November 2018 election. 

News of Prop. C shone a proverbial ray of light on a September day when wildfire smoke turned the sky orange. The California Supreme Court let stand previous rulings that validated the electoral victory of Prop. C. The courts ruled that the measure’s 61% victory margin was sufficient in enacting a corporate tax that would fund homelessness, health and housing programs — a win for unhoused people and their allies.

As a result, over $492 million held in escrow for almost two years was unlocked, effectively doubling the City’s homelessness budget. Just two weeks earlier, the Coalition on Homelessness offered recommendations on how to direct Prop. C dollars through a peer-based needs assessment study. 

Prison abolitionists also had cause to rejoice: County Jail No. 4 at 850 Bryant St. closed. The No New Jail SF coalition, which includes the Coalition on Homelessness, pressed the Board of Supervisors into passing an ordinance calling for the jail’s closure by November. No New Jails SF estimated the City saving $25 million in jailing mostly poor people and people of color, turning 850 Bryant into a de facto mental health facility and homeless shelter. Advocates see this as a step toward decarceration and de-funding the police.   

After accommodating 2,400 unhoused people in shelter-in-place hotels during the pandemic, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing announced in November an end to the program. The department said it would phase out the SIP program in favor of a “hotel re-housing” program, which offers no specifics as to where current hotel guests will go next. The City originally projected the first wave of closures to end by December 21, 2020, continuing through June 2021, before the Homelessness Department announced a $10 million infusion of state funding to extend the program for at least another 30 days.

As of publication, only about 500 people are on a path toward housing, and the Homelessness Department offered little specifics on where the rest of the occupants would go. In late November, the department was set to scrap its shelter grievance policy, which would leave people staying in shelters and SIP hotels with little protection if they get evicted. After advocates decried this change and scheduled a die-in outside Moscone Center, the department backtracked on the policy change and will extend the grievance process to hotel residents.

As the pandemic continues, 2020 has brought to light the intertwining of a public health emergency and the ongoing emergency of mass homelessness. For San Francisco to succeed in tackling one, it must address the other as well.