Unsung Heroes: Black People at the Pandemic’s Front Line

San Francisco is a racist city.  Black people in SF get evicted at higher rates, are subjected to environmental pollution at higher rates, get cancer at higher rates, get displaced at higher rates, get kicked out of school at higher rates, get bogus stopped by police at higher rates, get killed at higher rates, get jailed at higher rates.  

Let’s talk about poverty – African Americans are much more likely to be poor in SF, and are in fact are five times more likely to experience homelessness than white folks.  African Americans make up 41% of the homeless population in SF, yet are less than 5% of the overall population.  

This is because of our history: Black San Franciscans were redlined out of owning property, the typical way people in the United States accumulate wealth, so they don’t have accumulated wealth to fall back on when things get rough.  They also tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods and are getting displaced rapidly.  The Fillmore, which used to be the cultural home of the City’s Black community, got plowed over, the Victorians torn down, the hundreds of Black businesses pushed out.  The Bayview, another historically Black community in SF, went from 43% to 15% African American, its community members subject to severe displacement.  

Yep, San Francisco is a racist city, in a racist state, in a racist country.  You can find these same rates of disparity from coast to coast.  The United States is a racist country by any objective measure.   

Every Black person I know has faced a double lion’s share of tragedy in their lives – everything from losing multiple loved ones early and unnecessarily, facing homelessness, poverty, to daily indignities.  Hell, even COVID-19 is hitting Black folks harder.  As a white woman, I certainly don’t need to point these things out to black people — they are living it — but I do need to point them out to white people.  Sometimes we forget.  

We not only forget, but we often don’t recognize the heroes among us.  Just so you know, Black folks have risen to the top of the list of heroes during this pandemic in SF. 

I mean, with all that tragedy that Black people face, wouldn’t human instinct be to run away, hide out, stay put, stay safe, put yourself first?  But it is Black people in SF who are saving all of us.  

Black folks are leading the response, bucking the system and saving lives.  

The first shelter provider to move shelter residents into hotel rooms?  A Black provider.  The City plan when they called for everyone to “shelter in place” fell flat on its face when it came to the unhoused community.  City leaders made a myriad of nasty anti-homeless comments, and instead of doing what was right and moving everyone from congregate settings — where infection can run rampant — into private empty hotel rooms they have the power to commandeer, they instead spent time opening more congregate shelter sites.  Providence Foundation, a program of Providence Church moved two of their shelters into a hotel.  Shunned by the establishment, lefty supervisor Dean Preston asked if they were game.  The organization, led by Black director Patricia Doyle, did not hesitate.  The shelter residents, many of whom are also Black, got to shelter in place like the rest of us.  Elderly women, families with children, were the first of the unhoused community to have the opportunity for private baths, and private rooms during the pandemic.  The hotel operator praised the residents and went on to offer rooms for more unhoused people in the other hotel he owned.  

The first service provider to speak out publicly against the inhumanity of the City’s response to unhoused people during COVID-19?  Another Black person, Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House.  This is a program that runs a shelter, two drop-ins, community building program and a drop-in arts program.  They also hire a lot of black folks.  The providers were not being given the supplies they needed, the hand sanitizer, the thermometers nor the face masks.  They started getting these things on their own, even though the City for some reason was discouraging this and wanted all resources to come from a central place.  They also went rogue and placed their shelter residents in a hotel — not being able to wait any longer for the City to act.  Both these programs likely saved lives by doing this.  When they did this, they also showed how deeply they valued unhoused people.  The City is still only placing some homeless people in hotel rooms – less than 200 have been placed from the streets.  The rest continue to be forced to sleep in tents on crowded sidewalks with other tent dwellers. 

Which leads to another thing: The City was slow to recognize frontline homeless service providers as first responders.  It wasn’t until seven weeks in that they were recognized as such and now can perhaps access hotel rooms themselves to quarantine when they are exposed and have vulnerable family members.  Now who are these frontline homeless service providers?  Well, they are disproportionately Black.  Even though they will actually earn more money staying home and collecting unemployment, they are showing up to work, risking their lives and doing the hard work they are committed to.

I noticed in our own organization when this pandemic broke loose, the very first person to volunteer to come into the office to make sure phones were answered and support was given was our own in-house hero Emmett House.  Yep, you guessed it, he is Black.

OK so the City, as mentioned, is moving at a snail’s pace getting folks into housing.  So what do unhoused people do in the meantime? Well, another Black shero – Gwendolyn Westbrook, who runs the United Council of Human Services (otherwise known as Mother Brown’s) — had the answer.  She distributed hundreds of tents to her unhoused neighbors so they would at least have thin cloth to protect from the spread of the virus.  She then saw folks had nowhere to set up those tents.  What did she do?  She set up her own organized encampment in Martin Luther King Park in the Bayview.  She got access to the bathroom somehow from staff at the Recreation and Park Department, she got showers set up, she provided food three times a day.  Then she got the City to sanction the encampment – she didn’t wait for the City to set it up – she set it up and then asked for permission.  That is seriously cool.  The result: now every camper got to move into the RVs the state provided.  

This little homage is to the Black San Franciscans who are at the frontlines of the humanitarian catastrophe COVID-19 is unleashing on our homeless community.  You all are kicking ass and saving lives!  You are doing this city a great service, whether it recognizes it or not.  San Francisco owes you a tremendous debt.