In March, nine Bay Area counties issued a mandatory ‘shelter in place’ order to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. This order makes it a misdemeanor to leave your house for non-essential business, with the exception of exercise.
However, the health order exempts residents who are homeless. Simply put, this is because the majority of the Bay’s approximately 28,000 homeless individuals have nowhere to go. While the health order says that homeless individuals are “strongly urged to obtain shelter,” in many cases this is impossible because shelter beds and transitional housing programs are full.
“Prior to this, our shelter beds were filled. It’s not like we have a bunch of shelter beds that weren’t being utilized,” said Robbi Montoya, the program manager for the Berkeley Community Resource Center, when asked mid-March if there were beds left at the Berkeley shelter.
Additionally, while the general population is being urged to wash hands, disinfect commonly used items, and keep distance from other people to prevent spread of the virus, these activities can be very difficult to do for people experiencing homelessness.
As a result, city, county, and state governments are working on securing additional protections for unsheltered people. On the local level, the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco moved in early March to provide more sanitation supplies and information to encampments.
Many unsheltered individuals say the protections are still not enough. In March, San Francisco Public Press reported that many of the city’s newly installed handwashing stations were broken, empty, or missing. Advocates say the same is true in Oakland as well. And on April 10, San Francisco’s largest shelter, Multi-Service Center South, experienced a devastating outbreak of COVID-19. Ultimately, 102 residents and staff tested positive, and have since been moved into hotel rooms. Advocates say it’s only a matter of time before another outbreak occurs. The plans of cities are developing rapidly, but here’s what we know so far.
In Oakland, the city added portable toilets and hand washing stations to a new group of encampments. In addition to the 20 encampments that already receive this service, the city has provided 42 hand washing stations and portable toilets to 19 new encampments, and increased garbage pickup throughout the city. Officials said they would stop scheduling encampment sweeps for the time being, unless an encampment poses a public health concern. Shelters and transitional housing locations were also given additional cleaning supplies and information.
The city received 90 trailers from the state in early April to shelter the homeless during the pandemic, but to date they remain empty. The city says they have a goal of opening them up for unsheltered families and individuals on May 1st.
Throughout April, county officials struggled to move homeless individuals into the 393 hotel rooms that were acquired within the city of Oakland. For much of the month, they sat empty. At the time of publication, 381 homeless people have been moved into hotel rooms in Alameda County over all. Thus far, the criteria for being selected for a room is that you are infected with COVID-19, showing symptoms, or that you occupy one of the at risk categories (such as being over 65 years old, or have a pre-existing condition).
In Berkeley, 22 additional hand washing stations were installed throughout encampments, and outreach teams handed out around 300 kits with informational flyers and hand sanitizer. Shelters and community agencies all received informational flyers about preventing spread. The city has not conducted any sweeps of encampments during the crisis period, according to Councilmember Kate Harrison. Harrison says that the council will vote on April 21 whether or not to officially not conduct sweeps while shelter in place restrictions are in effect.
Due to close contact with shared space, Harrison said that, when it comes to contracting COVID-19, “shelters are in a funny way more dangerous than encampments.” Thus, the city has begun to move people who are interested from their shelters into staffed hotel rooms in Oakland. At least 13 have been moved so far, Berkeleyside reports.
In February, Berkeley’s city council voted to fund an outdoor emergency center for the over 100 people who live by the I-80 and Frontage Road. As of publication, staffing for the center has been postponed, but porta-potties and hand washing stations have been provided for the encampment and vermin control and trash collection have been implemented.
Alameda County is also taking steps to ensure that nobody becomes homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 24, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that will suspend the eviction of renters and homeowners who are losing income, or experiencing major out-of-pocket medical or childcare expenses due to the COVID-19. County residents who are served an eviction notice will need to show documentation of lost income or substantial expenses. The Ordinance took effect immediately after it was passed, and will remain effective until April 23, 2020 unless it is extended.
In San Francisco, officials’ focus was initially on people already living in shelters and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels, not on the 5,100 unsheltered people of the city. Early on, city supervisors allocated $5 million to go toward cleaning services for homeless shelters, Navigation Centers, and SROs.
However, the city’s directive for homeless shelters waivered throughout the month of March. Shelters were first directed to operate around the clock, rather than closing their doors in the morning as they usually do. Later in the month, as directives on social distancing became clearer, Mayor London Breed directed shelters to cut their capacity in half so guests could remain 6 feet from each other, as public health officials recommended. Then on March 23, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing told shelters to stop accepting new guests altogether. Confusingly, the department also instructed shelters on social distancing protocols, but specifically noted “DO NOT IMPLEMENT YET … Please do NOT implement 6 feet social distancing guidance in shelter until instructed to do so by HSH,” Mission Local reports.
To make up for the lack of shelter beds, the city announced it would create pop-up shelters to house 2,500 additional people. And in recent days, San Francisco supervisors have demanded that the city obtain empty hotel rooms for unsheltered people to move into, whether or not they are infected with COVID-19.
A new emergency ordinance passed by the city will require it to lease 8,250 hotel rooms for both frontline workers and unsheltered people. As of Tuesday April 14, 780 people have been housed in hotel and motel rooms in San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
San Francisco also passed a moratorium on evictions for tenants and homeowners. On March 13, Mayor Breed issued an Executive Order imposing a temporary moratorium on no-fault evictions for residential tenants who are directly impacted by the COVID-19. The order still allows Landlords to evict tenants for criminal activity or “health and safety issues.” It will remain in effect until the middle of April unless it is extended.
Though cities are starting to take action for those who remain unsheltered, a number of obstacles remain to protecting those who live on the street. Daniel Cooperman is the Director of Housing for Bay Area Community Services. He said that he has spoken with many unsheltered people who still didn’t know best practices, or how severe the situation may become..
“There’s still so much misinformation out there,” Cooperman said. “For people who are unsheltered, that information takes longer to travel because they’re not sitting at home on the computer or watching the news mostly.”
People who have been living on the street are particularly vulnerable to the respiratory disease due to limited access to soap and water, close proximity, and underlying health conditions.
Robbi Montoya, program manager of the Berkeley Community Resource Center, says unsheltered people are also vulnerable due to mental health issues, which she is careful not to exacerbate at her own shelter.
“We want to make sure the right info is getting out so that fear doesn’t trigger mental health or more fear,” she said. “We have to be very careful that we are being very thorough in conveying the messaging to our guests.”
The shelter in place order has also led to the closure of many regular meals and other supportive services for those who live on the street. As churches and other sources of food for unsheltered people shut down, those that remain are being strained by a surplus of need, and lack of volunteers making and distributing food.
Bob Whalen is the Kitchen Manager & Volunteer Coordinator at Dorothy Day House in Berkeley.
“We not only have more people there to eat but to hang out because the library and senior centers are closed,” he said. “Right now we are serving probably twice as many.”
As the virus moves quickly through communities, progressive city leaders and advocates across the Bay Area say they’ll be watching to make sure promises from mayors and the governor are kept.
“It’s going to be one day at a time. We look at the city for direction but they have never been in this situation before either,” Whalen said. “We’re all supporting each other to help figure it out. So far they’ve stepped in and recognized the need. I’m really hopeful we will make it work.”
Kate Wolffe is a journalist who lives in Berkeley.