Coalition on Homelessness, March 2019

Severe weather in San Francisco, which will occur more frequently due to climate change, be that poor air quality from fires, wind and rain storms or severe heat, has a disparate impact on homeless people forced to live outdoors. So far this year, San Francisco has faced six consecutive rain and wind storms, with high winds in three and flooding in all six, that left homeless people cold and wet, putting them at severe risk. Last November, fires engulfing California made San Francisco’s air quality the worst in the world. The City’s response to protecting our unhoused neighbors — over 4,500 which are unsheltered on any given night — from these hazardous conditions has been abysmal.

The City has a protocol in place that applies to wind, rain and cold, and a separate protocol for heat and poor air quality.  Many of this year’s storms did not meet the protocol; the Mayor made the executive decision to expand a very small number of shelter floor mats. However, the availability of these mats was poorly communicated.  Meanwhile, SFPD and Department of Public Works confiscated hundreds of tents, tarps and survival gear, leaving homeless people alone and unsheltered.

This is a deliberate choice from the City to ignore the health and wellbeing of our City’s homeless families, youth, and adults, exposing them to hours of dangerous pollutants that will have long-lasting health impacts or alternatively to cold, wind and rain that jeopardizes their very lives.

We implore the City and the Dept. of Homelessness to amend the emergency protocol to:

  1. Lower and simplify the threshold for the protocol so that it is activated at 50 degrees or with a 50% chance of rain, based on the National Weather Service. Community members and service providers will be able to memorize it easily and it will qualify this year’s storms.  These lowered thresholds must account for the fact that unhoused children, seniors, and people with chronic illnesses are particularly vulnerable and defenseless to severe weather conditions.
  1. When the protocol is activated, provide funding for emergency staff to keep all shelters open 24/7. When that is not possible, establish temporary emergency drop-in centers or ensure access in existing drop-in centers for the adults and families who have no access to daytime shelter and safety.
  1. When the protocol is activated, allow clients to go directly to shelters and receive any available empty bed without a shelter bed reservation or going to a resource center.
  1. Expand the number of winter shelter mats, which are currently open between December and April.
  1. Expand shelter access in predetermined locations that are available on the first night of the emergency, just as would occur during an earthquake or any other natural disaster. These sites can include expanded beds in current shelters, plus recreation centers, drop-in centers, school gymnasiums, and churches. They should include the same proportions of shelter health as occur in traditional shelters, in terms of nursing hours and health workers. Shelters should be available in multiple neighborhoods and have mats for sleeping, as well as raised cots for people with disabilities. Shelters must accommodate pets, couples, as well as people’s property or have a system in place for temporary storage.
  1. In the case of poor air quality alerts, ensure all community based organizations and homeless people on the streets have enough masks to distribute three per day per person. Order a sufficient quantity ahead of time and have in storage to be distributed on the first day of disaster. Have a distribution plan in place that includes pick-up locations broadly advertised and available on social media year round, and activate those locations as soon as disaster occurs. Masks should also be readily available in children’s sizes.
  1. Pass legislation that bans homeless sweeps, property confiscation, and the confiscation of tents and improvised structures. As many shelters are inadequate placements for homeless people (and, particularly, the most vulnerable homeless people) and it is unlikely we will have space for 4,500 people, it is essential that homeless people can retain their survival gear.
  1. As none of this is useful unless word gets out to homeless people, develop a strong communication plan once protocol is activated:

Action #1: Advertise on social media and website during activation and circulate protocol all year.

Action #2: Develop list serve with all city-funded, non city-funded community organizations, churches, civic organizations, and press. Send a clear and quick email that protocol has been activated and where to go for help.

Action #3: Make sure 311 is abreast of protocol and ensure people can reserve beds anytime through 311.

Action #4: Send Bulletin to SFPD, all city agencies, Muni drivers, libraries, and neighborhood groups.

Action #5: Announce shelter locations on bus shelter electronic boards that announce bus arrivals, and announce in underground Muni and BART stations.

Action #6: Send press release to media and encourage television news stations to run as banners on bottom of screens.

Action #7: Send out text alerts to every person on shelter reservation list who have phone numbers listed.  

Action #8: Make sure that all communication actions listed above are translated and conveyed in multiple languages to reflect the diverse language needs of our unhoused neighbors.