Overcrowding on San Francisco’s Tenderloin streets — a bad scene getting worse in coronavirus crisis

San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 2020

By Kevin Fagan

Roll through San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin any time of day, and the street doesn’t look normal. It’s worse. At a time when everybody is being urged to keep social distancing and California is under a shelter-in-place order, it appears little of that is going on in the Tenderloin’s street crowds. Many of those with doors to close are staying behind them, but that’s not who you see packing shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks, sprawling next to each other for naps and pitching tents side by side. It’s open-air drug dealers, bolder than ever. Addicts getting more antsy as the dope supplies start to dry up in a crisis-induced shortage. Street counselors and police wading into the crowds trying to help. And, most of all, the people who have the fewest choices of all: The homeless. “I don’t feel safe out here at all, but where am I going to go?” said Angelica Morgan, 30, as she walked toward her tent on Eddy Street. “There are people out here coughing, all nasty and unsanitary, and don’t care about putting masks over their faces. The cops tell us we’re safer inside our tents if there’s people around, but can I stay in there all day? No.”

Behind her, a pusher sold crack rocks to seven customers lined up on the sidewalk. The pusher wore nitrile gloves as he picked his wares out of a plastic bag at $5 or $10 a pop. Two of the addicts wore masks. Next door to the Faithful Fools nonprofit poverty agency on Hyde Street, a man in a green tent grimaced as police Officer Ernesto Linares leaned down and quietly said, “Can you please move your tent, sir?” The tent was blocking a doorway and touched the red tent next to it.

The man nodded tensely, and the tent got moved down the street — alongside a line of a dozen others, all right next to each other. Linares sighed. “All we can do is ask,” he said. “In this crisis, the idea is try to work with people like this who really do have it tough out here. But most of the time they just tell us to get lost.” Faithful Fools Co-Director Sam Dennison says the best way to spread out the crowds would be to open a city-sanctioned encampment between U.N. Plaza and City Hall with oversight by case managers. That idea is also being pushed by Randy Shaw, head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and several behind-the-scenes city officials.

“This health crisis isn’t that much different from what homeless people face anyway, it’s just a little more noticeable crowding going on right now,” said Dennison. Communicable diseases, from tuberculosis and hepatitis to HIV, have always rippled through people living outside, they — Dennison prefers that pronoun — noted, “and out here, they’re just using the survival skills they’ve developed as a community and trying to adjust to the new pressures.” The city’s shelters have stopped taking in new clients to avoid overcrowding. And although officials are renting several thousand hotel rooms and temporary shelter spots for homeless people, they are filling slowly and won’t be enough to make sure all 8,000-plus homeless people in San Francisco have a protected, isolated place to wait out the pandemic. Federal guidelines actually suggest leaving asymptomatic or non-vulnerable homeless people outside, but some activists are pushing for most to be put under roofs for maximum protection — citing the Tenderloin as a compelling example. The Tenderloin is San Francisco’s poorest neighborhood, a spread of cheap housing and small shops north of City Hall that has 30,000 residents and the city’s densest homeless population. Jeff Kositsky, head of San Francisco’s Healthy Streets Operations Center, which addresses homeless camps, said it’s been difficult at best to enforce good physical distancing there — or at any traditional encampment area, actually. “There’s definitely a lot of intention to cooperate out there,” he said. “But one thing we’ve noticed is that when we space tents out 6 feet, someone comes along and fills in the space, often at night.

“The good news is we’ll have more access to hotel rooms to put people into next week, and we’re coming up with some new strategies, like spreading out feeding programs to reduce crowds,” he said. “We’ll get it together. But none of this stuff is going to be a panacea. We need to do a lot of everything, not just one thing.” One thing driving the tendency to bunch up in groups is the culture of the Tenderloin. It’s not just full of homeless folks. It also has families, children and seniors, and the street scene is normally bustling with people visiting, shopping, going to small parks. With those people sheltering in place, Shaw points out that the crowds of tents and dealers and homeless people now filling the streets make it less safe for families to shop and avoid exposure to the coronavirus. But longtime Tenderloin activist Del Seymour, who once was homeless, said it’ll take more than fear of a virus to change behavior. “When you’re on the street, it’s a necessity to be together, and you can’t get around it,” he said. “It’s our need for each other. You can’t avoid going into the next tent or turning to the person next to you. You need a cigarette, you need a beer, you need to text — it’s constant. You have no other outlets in the Tenderloin. Social distancing — that ain’t gonna work here. “The best thing I can think of is putting people who are most at risk into hotels.”

To be sure, there are plenty of neighborhood efforts to ease the pain in the streets. Faithful Fools, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and others, including activist Cheryl Block Shanks, have given out hand sanitizer, homemade masks and nearly 1,000 tents during the coronavirus crisis. Community groups are holding art and social nights on Zoom, and the nonprofit Healing Well covered its windows with inspiring messages, including, “You Are Worthy of Love.”

But nothing makes tent life anything but miserable. “I wish to God they’d put me inside,” said Jeff Reaves, 58. He said he tries to keep his tent on Eddy Street away from others. “But someone always comes and puts one next to me, and we argue and fight, but that’s just the way it is. “It’s never safe out here anyway, but now?” He snorted. “Forget about it.”

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