San Francisco Adds Beds for the Homeless as Rain Pounds the City

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An improvised shelter on 17th Street in the Mission (Dan Brekke/KQED)

San Francisco officials are stepping up efforts to help some of the city's homeless stay warm and dry during the El Niño-fueled rainstorms.

On Thursday, the city's Human Services Agency set up more than 250 beds in six shelters across the city, including one pop-up shelter, in preparation for the current storm.

“The weather that results from an El Niño is extreme and individuals who have been living on the street, they get sick, and they get sicker when they're constantly wet and cold,” says Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer. “It's really a concern for their health.”

So far the city has activated four pop-up rain shelters this winter season in 16 locations. The shelters, which become available as needed when heavy rain is predicted, are concentrated in the Mission, SOMA, Bayview, Tenderloin and Haight neighborhoods. Rhorer says the extra shelters have the capacity to house 1,300 people. The additional beds are open for 24 hours during the storms.

According to Rhorer, the shelters have nothing to do with the upcoming Super Bowl festivities expected to begin next week in San Francisco. That’s despite Mayor Ed Lee’s announcement last August about getting the homeless off San Francisco’s streets in time for the game.

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“In terms of the Super Bowl, it’s really only a correlation of time and has nothing to do with our efforts around homelessness,” says Rhorer. “We work 24/7, 365 days a year, to get folks off the street and into a safer and more supportive environment.”

St. Anthony’s, which provides homeless services in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, has partnered with the agency. At night the organization converts its dining room into a shelter, offering up to 60 mattresses on rainy nights. It plans to keep its winter shelter open until March 31.

“Every night we’re just about full,” says St. Anthony’s Executive Director Barry Stenger. “At this point now, we’re turning people away.”

In addition to a warm and dry bed, St. Anthony’s will be offering dinner, breakfast, clothing and hygiene kits.

Although St. Anthony’s is filling up nightly, many of the pop-up shelters have empty beds. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, says this is because the city needs to do a better job of notifying the homeless about the shelters.

“Even with these efforts it’s really hard to get the word out,” says Friedenbach. “That’s going to continue to be the problem."

She says making a concerted effort to update the city’s 311 service can help as far as letting homeless people know where to go during rainstorms. But overall Friedenbach says the city is making progress.

With more rain forecast in the weeks ahead, HSA has more plans to help get the homeless off the street. Rhorer says a 150-bed tent shelter at Pier 80 is currently under construction. The new winter shelter is expected to open in the next two weeks.