A Cold COVID-19 Winter for City’s Homeless

As long nights close in, nonprofits serving the unhoused work to provide warmth and comfort, despite hurdles.

This winter is poised to be one of the most difficult San Francisco’s nonprofit social services have ever faced.

A sluggish economic recovery, the onset of the rainy season, and Mayor London Breed’s call to move several hundred unhoused people out of hotels are among the many challenges they’re up against. The Bay Area’s rising COVID-19 hospitalization rates prompted the city to opt into Governor Gavin Newsom’s regional stay-at-home order last week, and while the order states that critical infrastructure is to remain open, the SF.gov webpage about the order does not include specific guidance regarding services like shelters and dining rooms for unhoused people. Local nonprofits have been forced to adapt to the rapidly-changing public health crisis in real time, which is no easy feat when attempting to plan for large-scale events like Thanksgiving or Christmas — but they’re determined to make this holiday season one to remember.

“We will have our tents and we will have our tables, and I can promise you we will do our very best to make this Christmas special, even if it’s a difficult one,” Nils Behnke, CEO of the St. Anthony Foundation, says. “Or maybe because it’s a difficult one.”

The organizations SF Weekly spoke to described largely successful executions of their Thanksgiving plans, which ranged from socially-distant indoor dining to door-to-door meal delivery. Their success is a testament to the tireless efforts of long-term staffers and to the generosity of donors and volunteers, as well as to the resilience of San Francisco’s unhoused population. 

Mid-summer, local nonprofit leaders realized that the 2020 holiday season would have to look drastically different than years past. They began to plan, strategizing around how to pull off pandemic-safe celebrations without the physical support of their usual volume of volunteers. Some things would be very different — but others, very much the same.

“[The pandemic] doesn’t really change that much,” Keegan Medrano, policy and social media director for the Coalition on Homelessness, says. “The folks that we work alongside and uplift and learn from are folks who frequently don’t get the chance to celebrate holidays in the more traditional way.”

Tents fill up a new safe camping site in a former parking lot at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin on Thursday, June 11, 2020. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Medrano notes that for many unhoused people, the loneliness that countless Americans have felt during the COVID-19 crisis is a familiar experience. The holidays, he says, can “harken back” to relationships with loved ones that have since deteriorated due to extenuating circumstances, engendering a “profoundingly isolating” experience. The pandemic has only exacerbated those issues: “When you layer that or you undercut [trauma] with the fact that their basic needs aren’t being met, this can be a really devastating time,” he says.

The limitations the pandemic has imposed on small sources of comfort, like a hug from a volunteer, have made it that much tougher, he adds.

Local leaders moved early to ensure the holidays would still be abundant in some ways, if not in physical gatherings. Katharine Berg of La Casa de las Madres tells the Weekly that residents — typically women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse — decorated the shelter with a construction-paper tree full of leaves bearing expressions of gratitude. St. Anthony’s transitioned some of its annual fundraisers to a virtual format to preserve the revenue stream that supports its operations, and donors gave generously in proportion to the year’s increased costs, Behnke says. 

On Thanksgiving, St. Anthony’s arranged tents on the sidewalk outside their 150 Golden Gate Ave. dining room and served meals to guests waiting in line. The set-up was similar at GLIDE, where, according to spokesperson Denise Lamott, guests had the option to take their meals to go or eat in a tented outdoor dining area. GLIDE also delivered 200 meals to encampments across the city.

In a press release, Lamont underscores the importance of GLIDE’s mission this year: “In an unprecedented year that has seen a racial justice awakening and a global pandemic bringing rising food insecurity, massive unemployment and increased homelessness, GLIDE’s work has never been more urgent.”

For other organizations, a pandemic Thanksgiving meant fewer cooks in the kitchen. According to Berg, La Casa residents typically contribute to the holiday meal by cooking their specialties alongside the in-house chef, but this year, they instead submitted menu requests and meals were delivered to their doors. 

Esteban Cortez, the marketing communications manager at Raphael House, tells SF Weekly that Thanksgiving is usually a family affair: residents are allowed to invite guests into the shelter and share a sit-down meal in the dining room prepared by volunteers. Guests were not allowed this year, and because volunteers couldn’t congregate, two staff chefs cooked dinner for the entire shelter. Because Raphael House has two separate dining rooms, Cortez noted, they were able to safely host the meal indoors while allowing for social distancing.

Volunteers are another point of divergence among local organizations. Raphael House, which Cortez says welcomed up to 2,000 on-site volunteers annually in recent years, hasn’t hosted any since the pandemic began. But at St. Anthony’s, Thanksgiving marked the first time volunteers were welcomed back, which Behnke says was “one of the most exciting things” about the holiday. 

“What is so beautiful about this community and the way we come together and support the most vulnerable [is] the work of our staff and volunteers who are continuing to help us during this time,” Berg says. “That’s a piece that cannot be said enough.”

As nonprofits look forward to Christmas, the prognosis is grim. Just as the Bay Area’s infection rates are ramping up, Breed aims to wind down the shelter-in-place hotel program that currently houses around 2,400 people, though the Board of Supervisors postponed the plan in late November following protests. Cold winter weather and increased community spread of the virus may imperil the largely successful programs shelters and dining rooms have run thus far.  

“For me, I sometimes forget [that] it’s the holidays,” Medrano says. “I’m just trying to deal with people’s basic needs, and trying to deal with politicians who are going to pass policies that don’t really help the situation at all.”

The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing did not respond to a request for comment.

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