'It's a Cold Hell': S.F. Homeless Say City Not Doing Enough to Help Them During Storms

Wet tents sheltering people experiencing homelessness during this past week's storms in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Coalition on Homelessness)

The Bay Area has been hit by several winter storms since the beginning of the year, and the San Francisco homeless population says the city and the police aren't doing enough to help them during the extreme weather.

The recent storms brought record rain, flooding, high winds, low temperatures and even some snow to the Bay Area.

"It's one thing to rain, but then it's cold and it's windy too. All three? It's hell. It's cold hell. It's a cold hell," said James Smith, who has been living on the streets of the Tenderloin for over a year.

Smith — wearing four jackets, standing next to a wheelchair he uses when his sciatica acts up, and a pile of his belongings covered by half of a blue tarp with holes in it — said he hasn't been offered any services or housing by the city, despite the storms. Although the police haven't bothered him, he said they have been confiscating nearby tents.

Homeless advocacy groups agree. They say police have been seizing tents and survival supplies from people living on the streets before the storms. People on the streets have told advocates that the sweeps appear to increase before bad weather.

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In a statement, Mayor London Breed's office said crews only confiscate items if the person refuses to go to an open shelter bed. "If no shelter is available, officers will not issue a citation nor confiscate the tent," the statement said.

Brian Edwards, from the Coalition on Homelessness, said the worst homeless sweeps he has seen have been during storms. Edwards and his coworkers normally check on people living on the streets at least three times a week, but they increase that to nearly every day when the weather is bad.

He says San Francisco has one of highest rates of homeless people per capita, and there aren't options for the thousands living on the city's streets.

"No one's telling us that they're being offered services," Edwards said. "No one's telling us that they're being offered a place in a shelter."

According to San Francisco's Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing (HSH), the city opens up an additional 75 shelter beds or more if one of the following conditions are met:

  • Temperatures forecast to drop to or below 40 degrees for two consecutive days or longer
  • Rainfall forecast to be 1.5 inches or more each day for two consecutive days
  • Rainfall forecast to be 0.75 inches or more on each of three or more consecutive days or longer
  • Forecasts of temperatures to drop to or below 45 degrees AND rainfall to be 0.5 inches or more AND winds of more than 30 miles per hour all within the same 24 hour period for one or more days

HSH Director Jeff Kositsky said his department has voluntarily opened up those additional beds, including during the most recent storm, even though the required criteria were never met. If 70 of the 75 beds are used on any given night, the city expands its response by opening additional shelters as needed.

"I was proud of our efforts last week. And I'm really proud of the staff that are out in the rain in the cold trying to help people," Kositsky said. "Again, our protocols are good. But as long as anybody is out on the street, whether it's raining or not, we still have more work to do."

The department said it will continue to offer 75 additional shelter spots through Monday morning. But Edwards, of the Coalition on Homelessness, says the city is overloaded. There are nearly 1,200 people waiting for temporary beds on the single adult shelter waitlist in the city, and that doesn't include families with children.

SFPD officers conduct a homeless sweep in the rain. (Courtesy of the Coalition on Homelessness)

"The reality of it is, there are 5,000 people that can't fit into the shelter system today," Edwards said. "People think that oh, there's some place for people to go. Where are they going to go?"

Edwards says there's a myth that the homeless are offered resources and choose not to take them. But, he says, with 2,500 beds in the city already filled, the 5,000 people still on the streets have nowhere to go.

"The wind can blow someone's tent away, and then all of a sudden you're soaked. And so if you get a dry blanket, well then you need another dry blanket, then you need another dry blanket," Edwards said. "I don't know what there is to do besides build more housing and expand the shelter capacity."

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Mayor Breed's office said the city is committed to opening 1,000 new shelter beds by 2020.

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