The winter storm that moved into the Bay Area Friday evening was predicted to bring gusts of 50 mile-per-hour winds, two inches of rain, flooding, and temperatures that could drop to the low 40s. Most of us hunkered down in our respective apartments, savoring the luxury of watching the storm unfold from inside. But for the thousands of people living on San Francisco’s streets, the weekend weather system meant a mad rush to find cover, something the city — which has a waitlist of more than 1,200 people for a shelter bed — is ill-equipped to provide. During the last big rain storm in mid-January, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing rolled out a mere 25 additional “emergency” mats. Over the weekend, they increased it to just 75.
So when news broke of this latest storm, members of the Democratic Socialists of America’s San Francisco Chapter decided, once again, to take matters into their own hands. They fundraised more than $5,100 on GoFundMe in four days and purchased wet weather survival gear for their unhoused neighbors. On Thursday night, they filled two cars with the first round of supplies and hit the streets.
“The city is not scrambling to do anything when these storms come. Their response is very little, too late,” said Harvey Williams, a DSA member. “That’s the primary reason to help. The other is related to the sweeps themselves; we’ve gone out and taken statements from homeless people several times in the last nine months or so. Each of us has talked to dozens of people, and every single person I talked to had a story about the difficulty with shelter, and the city taking the shelter from them and the impact that has on their lives, which is tremendous. Everybody had a story about themselves, or about people who were close to them losing medication, walkers, tents, clothes, and family heirlooms.”
For Williams, it’s the effect of those losses that stuck with him the most. “When you don’t have a lot to begin with taking it can be a death sentence sometimes,” he said. “There were people I talked to who were sick because they had their clothes, tents, and toiletries taken from them.”
The original plan Thursday night was for one car to hit both Civic Center and the Tenderloin in search of people who needed supplies — but in the end, nearly every item from the bursting Honda Fit Williams drove ended up in the hands of people living on Willow Street, a three-block-long alley nestled between Franklin and Larkin streets. On Thursday night it was filled with people; some were part of large groups for safety and camaraderie, others were set up solo. Everyone needed gear. In less than an hour the seven tents, three sleeping bags, 12 packs of baby wipes, 60 socks, 25 ponchos, two jackets, a big box of Clif bars, and one emergency blanket were spoken for.
And along with each tent gifted, Williams and his comrade Tiffany Chan handed over a small, laminated card that read “Please call [number redacted] to report any confiscations. Let us know where, when, who was there (DPW, SFPD) and what was taken. Please include your contact info so we can follow up.”
Twelve hours later, there were two messages left on their voicemail. Police had swept Willow Street that morning, hard. At least two of the tents DSA had gifted the alley’s residents had been confiscated; as many as five were seen in the back of a city-owned truck.
“The cops shake the tent and shout ‘SFPD!’,” a woman named Caitlin, a recipient of one of DSA’s tents who was hit by the sweeps Friday morning, told SF Weekly. “If you don’t answer right away they unzip the door and try to wake you up. Then, he asked if we want to give it up freely or be arrested or go to jail. We jumped up really quick and started breaking it down really quick, hoping if we packed it up he wouldn’t take it. But he stopped it in the middle of rolling it up and told us not to bother — it was going in the back of the truck with the rest.”
This isn’t the first time Caitlin has been hit by police — or even, this same officer. “Officer Tim Minkel, he’s the one we deal with all the time,” she said. “When we were on Elm, we asked if he enjoyed doing this to people. And he said ‘yeah I do because it’s an eyesore seeing your stuff on the street.’ All the DPW guys were laughing.
“Living on the streets is not fun for us, by any means,” she added. “It’s hard seeing them able to joke about us losing our stuff. It’s a really big impact, it makes a big big difference for us. You’re told for so long SFPD is here to help, and then they do stuff like that.”
It’s sadly nothing new; SFPD has been confiscating people’s tents for years. But people who live on the streets have told advocates that the sweeps appear to increase before bad weather.
“We received a lot of reports of SFPD taking folks tents this morning, right before the storm,” the Coalition on Homelessness’ Kelley Cutler wrote on Facebook Friday. “That’s the new norm in San Francisco…. on outreach we regularly hear that SFPD has been telling them to turn over their tent or go to jail. This is something people report experiencing on a regular basis, if not daily.
“The worst sweeps I have witnessed have happened during the storms,” she added. “It’s cruel.”
As for members of the DSA, they’re disappointed but not discouraged. Even though several of the tents they distributed Thursday night were seized, they kept the fundraiser open and a couple thousand dollars more rolled in. They went back out the next day.
All told, in one weekend they distributed 47 tents, 29 tarps, 89 ponchos, 280 pairs of socks, 58 tanks of propane, 53 packs of baby wipes, 75 bottles of water, 84 Clif bars, 15 plastic bins, 25 sleeping bags, and 160 maxi pads.
“I’m super sad the sweeps happened, but I’m really glad we gave out these cards,” Williams said. “It’s going to get us some good information.”
And that information is needed: No one is collecting data on how many sweeps of homeless people’s belongings occur each week in San Francisco.
But people are starting to pay attention; Supervisor Matt Haney has called for a hearing on what the city’s emergency protocols are to protect its unhoused residents during extreme weather.
“I was surprised that during the most recent storm in San Francisco we did not have a more robust plan,” he said during last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “Only 25 mats were set up during a brutal storm and we left thousands of people on the streets. I know that as a city we are committed to ending homelessness, but we have to be more aware as we will no doubt see more rainstorms, heat waves, fires, and cold. How are we preparing so that we respond actively and urgently to provide shelter when there is extreme weather?”
The hearing is a necessary formal step to creating a better plan moving forward, but it will undoubtedly prove what everyone already knows: the city of San Francisco is not helping our homeless neighbors during extreme weather. If anything, its policies of removing what little protection people have from the elements — while 1,200 people sit on a waitlist for a shelter bed — could be seen as an unconscionable violation of human rights.