It has been six years since Tina Owens had her own place.
“I’ve slept in my truck, I’ve slept on mats, I’ve slept on the sidewalk in sleeping bags, you name it,” she says. “Everything except a cardboard box.”
Most recently, she slept in a tent provided by the Bayview community organization Mother Brown’s. The drop-in center doesn’t have a permit to provide beds, but people come for meals and showers and they spend the night in chairs.
When Mother Brown’s was told to reduce its capacity from more than 100 to 30 to allow for social distancing, it set up an informal tent encampment in a local park.
The organization’s CEO, Gwendolyn Westbrook, says park rangers ordered the tents to be taken down. Westbrook and other advocates waited for two weeks, then put the tents back up. Eventually, Mayor London Breed offered the use of trailers FEMA had provided that were parked at Pier 94.
For Owens, it is a bright side to the pandemic.
“Believe it or not, this COVID thing made things a lot easier for us, being homeless, because everything speeded up,” she explains. “They made sure we were off the streets. They made sure that everybody was somewhere.”
But there are still thousands who have not been moved indoors. At the time of writing, the city has housed more than 1,400 unsheltered people. The Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring the city to acquire 8,250 hotel rooms.
The interim head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, says there is only FEMA funding available to house people who meet certain criteria. They include those 60 and older, people with underlying medical conditions, and those who have tested positive or been exposed to COVID.
“We need to be stewards of the public trust and funds as well and take tremendous responsibility,” she says. “So from a public health perspective we need to move the most vulnerable. And also from a fiscal perspective the city and the Mayor is facing a significant budget crisis. So if we pull just everyone off the streets we won’t get reimbursed by the state or the federal government for those hotel rooms.”
The city also has to staff the sites and some city employees have been called in as disaster service workers to help. Naima Dean is the Branch Manager for the Western Addition Public Library. She is now working as a site monitor at one of the “Shelter in Place” sites.
She says she knew it was a possibility she would be deployed in an emergency. But she says, “I think in our minds, most of us were prepared for the earthquakes. I don’t think any of us could have expected or prepared for this, or had this in mind.”
With no formal training in the field, Dean says some aspects are challenging.
“It’s hard on you emotionally, mentally, and physically,” she explains.
She is missing her family because she is staying away just in case she exposes them to the virus. She is also worried about whether her library job will still be there when the city reopens.
But she is also finding her new work rewarding. "You open the door and you literally watch all the stress just fall off their backs. The posture changes, the furrowed brow eases, a smile, a big breath,” she says.
“I’m also a person of color and there a lot of people at this site that are people of color, and I’m happy to see them have this opportunity in this hard time where people of color are at a disadvantage.”