'It's barely a Band-Aid': life inside San Francisco's first sanctioned tent camp

The Guardian, May 22, 2020

By Vivian Ho


Residents have access to meals, electricity to charge phones, toilets and healthcare. But for many it’s too little too late


Vivian Ho in San Francisco


An aerial view of San Francisco’s first temporary sanctioned tent encampment for the homeless on 18 May. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Jasmine Villereal needed a shower, and on the other side of this chain-link fence in the middle of San Francisco there were showers.


It should have been perfect: these showers were for homeless individuals living in tents. Villereal was a homeless individual living in a tent. But while her tent sat crammed on a narrow sidewalk alongside more than a dozen others three blocks north, considered a blight by officials and neighborhood residents, the tents surrounded by this chain-link fence were city-approved.


The Safe Sleeping Village is one of San Francisco’s new officially sanctioned homeless encampments, a rare initiative announced by Mayor London Breed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Occupants of the 70 tents spaced out in socially distanced, painted squares in the shadow of City Hall have access to steady meals, electricity to charge their phones, toilets, fresh water, hand-washing stations, healthcare – and those much-desired showers.


But for many, the project comes as too little, too late.


Breed launched the plan earlier this month as a solution to a homelessness crisis compounded by an outbreak. With shelters no longer taking in new guests during the pandemic and forced to reduce capacity by 76% to adhere by social distancing guidelines, the number of tents throughout the city had leapt by at least 71%.


In the historically underserved Tenderloin neighborhood, a low-income community in the heart of the city experiencing the brunt of the crisis, tents have increased by 258%.


“While in normal times I would say that we should focus on bringing people inside and not sanctioning tent encampments, we frankly do not have many other options right now,” Breed said. “Having places with resources serving people in the neighborhood is better than unsanctioned encampments.”


But with the city’s fraught history of encampment sweeps and move-along orders, few within a homeless community of more than 8,000 individuals could trust the city to do right by them either. Villereal, 40, for one, was not getting a shower any time soon.


“I don’t live here,” she shrugged at the Safe Sleeping Village, which is guarded by staff from the not-for-profit Urban Alchemy. “That’s what they told me.” With the stay-at-home order, and shelters and gyms with those facilities closed, it’s been more than a month since Villereal has had a real shower. She’s been forced to take “bird baths”, washing up in public water fountains and bathroom sinks.


“Look at my hands,” she said mournfully, gazing down at her dirt-blackened fingertips. “I try, I really do, but look at them.”


How the encampment came to be

The move comes as a major shift not just for Breed’s administration, but for the city, which has long had an uncivil relationship with tents. In 2016, San Francisco voters banned tents on public sidewalks, adding to the city’s retinue of anti-homeless laws that are among the most stringent in California. Earlier that year, San Francisco played host to the Super Bowl, and in the months leading up to the festivities, more and more homeless people found themselves getting pushed by authorities out of the city’s main stretches. Shelters – oftentimes tents – would end up confiscated, along with everything inside them.


Even after a court ruling held that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment to enforce criminal laws against homeless people living on the street if a city did not offer enough shelters, the sweeps and tent confiscations persisted. The number of homeless individuals who lost everything they had because of the city’s stance on tents was enough that housing advocate Leslie Dreyer started the Stolen Belonging Project. “The city has focused on getting rid of visible homelessness for many years, and I don’t think the general public really understood what it meant to throw a tent away,” Dreyer said.


Homeless individuals without a shelter were exempt when the shelter-in-place order came down on 17 March, but that didn’t protect them from infection, or from possibly spreading the virus. Desperate homeless outreach activists began purchasing and handing out tents. Despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to not clear encampments if there were no individual housing units available, sweeps still continued.


“From the moment we gave out the first tent, we were asking where they safely could be and the city would only tell us where they couldn’t be, not where they could be,” said local activist Christin Evans.


“They can’t be in the park. They can’t be in business corridors. They can’t be near residences,” said Kelley Cutler, the human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness.


Encampments of all sizes bloomed organically throughout the city. In the Bayview, a historically African American neighborhood in south-east San Francisco, tents went up in Martin Luther King Jr Park, 6ft apart from each other. Neighborhood not-for-profits provided residents with what they needed, and they had bathroom access on site.


More than 100 tents had assembled in the plaza near City Hall before it became the city’s first official encampment. According to some in the homeless community, a whisper campaign brought many to that location. Before the city got involved, those in the plaza created their own makeshift ecosystem, making do with what little they had. One man recalled someone putting a toilet seat on top of a bucket to make up for the lack of access to public restrooms.


“One day we woke up and the barriers were up,” said encampment resident Mick Conway, 49. “One day we woke up and the fences were up. The next day they put the green fabric [over the fence] up, and then one day, they locked the doors, they locked the gates, and no one was allowed in or out.”


Those that ended up inside the fence had the option to sign an agreement with the city stating that they would follow encampment rules and policies. Those that chose not to sign had to leave. The agreement says that the program is slated to end on 30 June.


Too little, too late?

For some, the security offered in this sleeping village is a respite. Encampment residents can sleep until noon without worrying about a neighbor calling in their presence as a nuisance. Conway said he likes “being able to set up your tent and stay where you want instead of being harassed by the police and pushed off somewhere else”. The green fabric gives the camp a semblance of privacy, and the Urban Alchemy staff stand watch at the doors and let in only residents and service workers.


But the camp is also a caged spectacle. Pedestrians gawked at the fence, discussing it loudly as they passed. A man walking a chocolate labrador retriever stopped to peek through a gap in the green fabric, while another man slowed to film with a small camera. “Go back to your home, sir,” a member of the city’s homeless outreach team said.


“It’s a somber feeling inside,” Conway said. “It’s not happy. I don’t want to compare it to a concentration camp or something of that nature, but it’s definitely not the jolliest of places.”


Lena Miller, the founder and CEO of Urban Alchemy, is well aware that the village is, despite well-meaning intentions, “showcasing the horrors of poverty and hopelessness during the pandemic”. She asked for artists to donate artwork to the camp, musicians to perform for the residents and art therapists and teachers to facilitate “healing activities”.


But this wouldn’t solve the issue that across the street from the sanctioned encampment, at least 10 more tents crowd the sidewalk. The residents in that encampment had a hand-washing station and a port-a-loo, but a few blocks up, where more people than tents packed the corner, they had nothing, some sleeping out in the open.


“This is barely a Band-Aid,” said Adam Reichart, 50, gesturing at the sanctioned encampment. Every morning, Reichart is woken up by a public works employee, who gives him three Kind bars in exchange for the cardboard box hut that he sleeps under for protection. Reichart, who has three tumors on his lungs, is one of the medically vulnerable on the streets for whom the city’s hotel room program is designed. But 10 weeks in, he still can’t get a hotel room.


The city is planning on opening more sanctioned encampments. But homeless outreach advocates and service workers are frustrated. They had offered the solution of sanctioned encampments weeks ago, when the city made clear that it would not house all unhoused individuals in hotel rooms.


But it wasn’t until 10 weeks into the stay-at-home order that the city listened. It wasn’t until thousands of the homeless population suffered in the streets, with nowhere else to go. It wasn’t until individuals like Jasmine Villereal had gone more than a month without a proper shower.


Villereal smiled a heartbreaking, toothless smile before walking away from the green-cloth fence. “Remind everybody you see to not stop caring,” she said.

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