By Thomas K. Pendergast
On May 5, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors acknowledged that a virus had just suspended years of city policy to break up homeless camps when they get too big.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued COVID-19 guidelines, which stressed that if homeless people are voluntarily encamped in their own tents, this was a better situation for slowing down the spread of the virus than dispersing the people and potentially sending the virus with them.
Following the CDC guidelines, the board passed an emergency ordinance to provide staffed restroom facilities for homeless encampments at a ratio of 1 per 50 unsheltered people. District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney said that a month before, the City only had three 24-hour bathrooms. The new legislation would eventually increase the number of facilities to 49.
Since then, homeless encampments throughout the City have been provided with portable restrooms, washing stations and attendants, including three in the Richmond District: in front of the old Alexandria Theater at 18th Avenue and Geary Boulevard, on the corner of 24th Avenue and Balboa Street, and on 48th Avenue behind the Safeway at La Playa and Fulton streets near Ocean Beach.
“The CDC guidelines are to not move encampments, not doing tent sweeps and all that,” Ian Fregosi, legislative aide to District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said. “Their guidelines say that tents are the safest. For the people that are on the street in homelessness, tents are the safest option for them because it provides at least some layer of protection from open-air exposure to other people. If people are going to be in these places, then there should at least be bathrooms there.”
The board had previously set a goal of getting people into 8,250 hotel rooms now sitting empty because the tourism industry is stagnant due to travel restrictions and fears of COVID-19. But, with only a couple thousand hotel rooms procured so far, this effort has “kind of stalled,” Fregosi said.
So, providing already established camps with bathroom and washing facilities seems like the next best thing.
“If they’re going to be there then they should at least have a bathroom and hand washing stations so they’re not urinating and defecating on the streets,” Fregosi said. “And if they have a way to wash their hands, they’re a lot less likely to spread disease.”
Fewer requested that the City install the stations where the homeless encampments already existed.
“In the Richmond we have three distinct encampments; whereas other places in the City, they have tents lining blocks,” Fregosi said.
Richmond District resident Ashley Hill has noticed these camps, especially after some crime recently came her way.
“My car has had numerous property damage incidents since living in the Richmond,” Hill said. “The door was kicked in. A man was screaming to himself coming down in front of our building and my car is parked right in front of our building so we can keep an eye on it. And he kicked in my door and my neighbor’s door, just freaked out and kicked our doors in for no reason. And then he hopped on the 38 bus and took off. And then recently my catalytic converter was stolen and then my neighbor’s catalytic converter was stolen. It just seems like things are getting out of control.”
Tracy Oxsen, 48, said she was raised in the East Bay and has been homeless for about six years. She takes exception to painting all the homeless with the same brush.
“I feel like it’s unfair because not everybody is a frickin’ bat-shit-crazy nut. Not everybody has lost their mind that’s homeless,” she said while cleaning up around her tent on 48th Avenue. “Not every homeless person is strung out so bad on drugs that they’re hanging around with needles in their arms laying in the gutter.
“Not all those who wander are lost,” she said, quoting J.R.R. Tolkien.
Oxsen said she became homeless by choice.
“I paid rent and bills and worked three jobs and went to school and raised my son by myself and I did all that stuff. I paid all those bills and I decided that after my son was raised that I would stop paying bills and worrying about getting kicked out of places and not having enough money,” Oxsen said.
“Once you get out here you get complacent. Going inside kind of causes anxiety.”
Oxsen said she and her girlfriend were camping in Golden Gate Park when the shelter-in-place order came.
“They left us alone until somebody called. They didn’t bother us; when somebody called they made us move. So I moved.
“We left there and somebody had mentioned coming over here. When we did that, there were two tents and the police had given us a limit on the number of tents; they told us how far apart to be,” she said.
“We police ourselves over here,” Oxsen explained. “We have to be three squares from the next tent. We have to have three squares on each side of us. And two to three squares in front of us for people to walk by and stuff.”
Rebecca White lives not too far from that encampment, and she doesn’t like it.
“I’ve been out here eight years, starting my ninth year, and I lived on Nob Hill before that,” White said. “When I first came out here I had tremendous sympathy for the homeless. I have no sympathy for them anymore at all. At least the ones I know.
“I’ll help people who want help but I will not enable people who don’t want help,” she said.
According to the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), the Healthy Streets Operation Center decided that moving people into shelters was no longer possible after an outbreak of COVID-19 in a single homeless shelter infected 70 people in April. They said that is the reason there are more people living unsheltered than there were before this decision and even before the pandemic. They didn’t have enough shelter space for the City’s homeless.
“We try to respect those people across the street. We really do,” Oxsen said. “They’re just pissed. That’s all there is to it. They’re pissed; they probably got cabin fever; they’re bored by now you know. I’m sure the calls are going to get more and more. The more bored they get, the more they see us out here; the more they see us getting comfortable. They see a lot of us getting real comfortable right here and that’s freaking them out, ‘cause they think that we’re never going to go.
“And I get it,” she said. “They paid a lot of money, but the world as we knew it is over, I think. I really do. And what we once were and what we once knew is not going to be. It’s gone. It did pass.
“So many of them are homeless too and they just don’t know it yet,” Oxsen continued. “The way the economy is and people who can’t work and their businesses are going to go under and their homes are going to get foreclosed. And there’s a good number of them that will happen to.”