For decades, San Francisco has failed to house the homeless. Will the pandemic change all that?

Tents used by homeless people in San Francisco under a freeway overpass. (Photo credit: Shannon Badiee/Wikimedia Commons)
Tents used by homeless people in San Francisco under a freeway overpass. (Photo credit: Shannon Badiee/Wikimedia Commons)

Additional writing by Josh Wilson

Although San Francisco prides itself as “the City that Knows How,” it has also largely failed to provide housing for thousands of people and families living on its streets.

But the coronavirus pandemic may be changing all that.

Search for safe space

San Francisco is an enormously wealthy town, and has only grown richer as mainstays of the digital economy, such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google put down roots in the city.

But this economic boom has also brought skyrocketing housing costs, which have only deepened the city’s intractable, multi-decade homelessness crisis.

Now, the city government is making an unprecedented effort to provide new places to shelter, and to relieve crowding in existing facilities.

This includes leasing hotel rooms and trailers to enable social isolation and quarantines for people who lack a home.

In addition to finding safe spaces for the city’s roughly 8,000 homeless people, San Francisco is also confronted by almost 20,000 people living in crowded residential hotels, where social isolation is almost impossible.

To this end, the city is seeking to lease at least 3,500 hotel rooms; so far just 2,000 have been made available.

Will it work?

Advocates also fear homelessness will actually increase as a consequence of businesses shutting down and people losing their jobs and incomes.

Some of the advice offered has also been less than helpful, such as city officials advising some people living on the street to sleep only one person per tent, and keep tents separated by six feet.

Meanwhile, many of the city’s emergency hand-washing stations appear to be broken, lacking supplies, or missing altogether.

An additional barrier to preventing the spread of the disease is that San Francisco’s homeless population may be largely unaware of the threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

Knowledge gap

The daughter-father team of Erica and Eric Moseley chatted about the pandemic with over 100 homeless people in the city’s Tenderloin District, and other areas of the city, and found that less than 50 percent of them had any idea what the Moseleys were talking about.

There are at least 150,000 homeless people in California; they represent one of the highest-risk groups for the pandemic.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, has committed $150 million to helping house the state’s homeless during the crisis.

Yet reports found that the state’s homeless are still largely living on the streets and gathering in groups in its major cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Sources: KRON-4 (San Francisco), ABC 7 (San Francisco), NBC Bay Area (San Jose), Bloomberg, San Francisco Public Press

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