What's San Francisco Doing for Homeless in Bad Weather? Not Enough, Critics Say

A tent encampment on Division Street in San Francisco.  (Courtesy of the Coalition on Homelessness)

Amid criticism from advocates for the homeless that San Francisco hasn't done enough to help people living on the streets during this winter’s storms, the city has said it will change its extreme weather policy to open up more shelter space and make more services available.

The city’s current cold and wet weather policy for the homeless is activated when a combination of extreme wind, rain and temperature thresholds are reached. In such cases, the city opens up an additional 75 shelter beds.

Only two days since Jan. 1 met the thresholds to officially trigger the weather protocol, said Scott Walton, of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), during a hearing on the issue Thursday at City Hall. But in February alone, it rained 17 out of 28 days.

“Even though we haven't met the cold snap protocol, it's been cold, it's been wet. And just walking down the street, you can see folks that are alone in a doorway,” said Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness. “And when you get cold and wet, with nowhere to get out of that, you stay cold and wet, and it has a huge impact on people and their health.”

Kelley Cutler, of the Coalition on Homelessness, speaks at the hearing on Thursday. (Hope McKenney/KQED)

The city has a homeless population of about 7,000 people and 2,500 shelter beds.

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HSH opened up additional beds during the storms even though the required criteria were never met, said director Jeff Kositsky. If 70 of the 75 beds are used on any given night, the city expands its response by opening additional shelters as needed, he added.

Still, the thresholds for the current policy are too high, said Kositsky, and the city will look at lowering the requirements — such as the amount of rainfall — to activate its response. It also will take single- and multiple-day rain accumulations into account and might increase shelter expansion to around 200 mats.

The proposed changes, yet to be finalized, include revising the activation thresholds as follows:

• Rainfall forecast to be 0.75 inches in one day or a cumulative total of 1.5 inches in two consecutive days, or:
• Temperatures forecast to drop to or below 45 degrees for two consecutive days or longer when accompanied by 0.5 inches of rain and/or winds of 20 mph or greater within the same period.

The policy needs to be rewritten, in part “because it’s both unclear for people experiencing homelessness as well as our staff,” said Kositsky.

People hold signs reading "Stop the Sweeps!" and "Stop Lying!" during the hearing on San Francisco's extreme weather response to homelessness. (Hope McKenney/KQED)

More from our coverage of homelessness.

Still, homeless advocates said the changes wouldn’t go far enough. One key need is more beds, Cutler said.

With 2,500 beds in the city filled, thousands of people living on the streets have nowhere to go during storms. Nearly 1,400 people were waiting for temporary beds on the single adult shelter waitlist, which doesn't include families with children, Cutler said.

Advocates and the homeless also criticized the San Francisco Police Department, saying they do sweeps of homeless camps — seizing tents and survival supplies — during storms.

“If there’s no shelter available, our policy is that you cannot issue a citation and you cannot confiscate a tent as evidence. You have to work to the best of your ability as an officer to connect that person with a navigation center or a shelter,” police Cmdr. David Lazar said during the hearing.