No Shelter from the Storm

by Brian Edwards

“During the first heavy storm of February, a really sweet older gentleman who sells the Street Sheet rang the bell to our office. When I opened the door, I could barely recognize him. He was shaking, soaking wet, and couldn’t even walk up the stairs without my help. His hands, bone white and shriveled from the rain, shook so badly that it was nearly impossible for him to drink the hot tea we’d given him. He’d been staying outside in the constant rain for two days in a tent. We scrambled to get him warm clothes and a shelter bed for the night, but it was both heartbreaking and haunting to witness this suffering, a product of the inhumane way the City treats homeless folks. With a severe shortage of shelter beds, SFPD and DPW continued to confiscate tents night and day during this storm, and others before and after it. I wonder where he is tonight.”

That’s Coalition on Homelessness Policy Director Sam Lew, describing her experience with just one of the thousands of unsheltered San Francisco residents who have spent recent storms outside in the cold and rain.

Since January 1, the National Weather Service has issued flash flood warnings and high wind warnings during three major San Francisco storms. Gusts of wind were predicted to reach over 60mph during all three storms, and temperatures dropped into the low 40s. So far this year, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s response to extreme weather events has been to make 25-75 extra shelter mats available. With only 2,500 total shelter beds in San Francisco (awaiting updated number from Ben), 75 additional mats create space for about 1.5 percent of those 5,000 unhoused San Franciscans not already in the system, and those mats are only available between 8pm and 7am. Most homeless people aren’t even aware of the additional shelter capacity, as it has become more difficult to notify them since repeated sweeps have caused people to scatter in hopes of escaping enforcement. With limited City resources for extended outreach, many of the additional mats remained empty during the recent storms due to poor communication.

For San Franciscans forced to spend their days, nights, or both outside during cold and wet weather, a tent can provide shelter and respite from outside conditions that would otherwise be even more miserable. During the recent storms, SFPD continued to use the threat of arrest to compel people to handover their tents, sometimes hitting the same folks night after night. Without shelter, blankets and clothes become soaked, and often stay that way until after a storm subsides. Meanwhile, the SFPD Tenderloin Station bragged on Twitter last week about clearing encampments and arresting one unhoused resident, referring to that person as a ‘camper.’

The problem  isn’t limited to San Francisco – the US Conference of Mayors has consistently reported that the number of people seeking shelter during inclement weather exceeds by far the actual number of available beds. San Francisco may not be experiencing extreme temperatures like much of the rest of the country, but for the people here who don’t have access to shelter from the elements, the impact of storms is extreme enough.

“We’ve received a lot of reports of SFPD taking folks tents,” says Kelley Cutler, Human Rights Organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “Before storms, during storms… that’s the new norm in San Francisco. On outreach we regularly hear that this is something people are experiencing on a regular basis, if not daily. People are wet, exhausted and weary. Folks can barely recover from one storm before another one comes along. They need dry blankets, because everything they own is soaked.”

Historically, most injuries and fatalities caused by cold weather have been incurred by soldiers, and the majority of cold weather injury reports in medical literature come from military history. Cold was responsible for more injuries to heavy bomber crews in WWII than all other causes combined, as well as 10 percent of all US casualties during the Korean War. But one need not join the army to be at high risk of suffering due to cold. Cold weather poses a number of unique threats to people who are unhoused, and can be greatly exacerbated by rain and/or high winds. Tents and other improvised shelters can be blown away or ripped apart, leaving people more vulnerable to exposure. Flash floods can also damage or destroy shelter, and leave homeless residents and their belongings soaked for hours, or even days.

The health risks caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures increase in wet and windy weather, and include heart, brain, and kidney malfunction, as well as lowered immune response – for instance, homeless individuals are 75 percent more likely to develop chronic bronchitis than those who are housed. Homeless people in every age group are already three times more likely to die than people the same age in the general population, and those who have a history of cold-weather health issues, such as frostbite, immersion foot (trench foot), and hypothermia have an eightfold increase in risk of death when compared to other homeless individuals.

Hypothermia, defined as having a core body temperature below 95 degrees, can occur when the outside temperature is as high as 50, or even higher in the presence of rain and/or high winds. Wind increases the rate of heat loss from exposed skin, and wet clothing causes a twentyfold increase in heat loss. This is a potentially fatal condition, with mortality rates ranging from 30-80 percent, and can quickly lead to impaired cognition, including one’s ability to know that they are in urgent need of emergency shelter and medical attention. According to the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, people who are homeless have three to six times the risk of hypothermia than people who are housed.

HSH’s Cold and Wet Weather Policy and Procedure for Unsheltered Persons Experiencing Homelessness requires forecasts of temperature and rain to meet one or more of the following conditions in order to trigger the automatic expansion of SF’s Adult Emergency Shelter System:

Temperatures forecast to drop to or below 40 degrees for two consecutive days or longer, OR

Rainfall forecast to be 1.5 inches or more each day for two consecutive days, OR

Rainfall forecast to be 0.75 inches or more on each of three or more consecutive days or longer, OR

Forecasts of temperatures to drop to or below 45 degrees AND rainfall to be 0.5 inches or more AND winds of more than 30 miles per hour all within the same 24 hour period for one or more days.

None of this year’s storms have met those conditions up until February 13th. However, HSH responded the same way they would have if one or more of those thresholds had been reached – by adding an additional 25-75 shelter mats. 25-75 extra mats for the 5,000 San Francisco residents living outdoors with little or no protection from the elements. That’s it. In order for HSH to consider additional service expansion, such as ‘pop-up’ emergency shelters, the thresholds are even higher, although the protocol does allow for situations such as flooding or high winds to be taken into account. Both of those conditions occurred several times already this year, often together, but no further expansion of services was offered.

The City’s current policy for shelter during inclement weather is almost comically inadequate, and puts our unhoused neighbours at serious additional risk of health and safety issues, especially while SFPD and DPW continue to ramp up sweeps and tent confiscations. It will take years for San Francisco to have the shelter capacity to meet the needs of the its homeless residents, and while cruelty and indifference continue, city officials have yet to  propose any robust, workable solutions.

‘I wonder,’ mused Kelley Cutler. ‘Will the City refrain from doing sweeps and taking folks’ survival gear during the next storm? And the one after that? They didn’t during the last ones. The worst sweeps I have ever witnessed all happened during storms. Will they continue to keep kicking people while they’re down? It’s cruel.’