As Temperatures Drop, Bay Area Cities Scramble to Expand Limited Shelter Capacity

Ezekial, who just gave his first name, said he's been homeless in San Francisco for two months. He just bought plastic covers to line his tent, on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin District, in a last-ditch effort to keep dry during the rains. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Winter came early to the Bay Area this week, with cold rain pelting the region on Tuesday and temperatures dropping dramatically, dipping into the mid-40s overnight.

Not exactly extreme weather by most measures, but brutal for those who don’t have homes. For the first time in months it was enough to force thousands of people sleeping in tents or vehicles to scramble to find places to stay warm, dry and nourished.

On Tuesday, before the rain started, Shelby Wildeman, 52, picked up a piece of cardboard to slip under his sleeping bag in preparation for the wet night ahead, which he planned to spend outside San Francisco’s Mission Bay Library. The cardboard, he said, helps insulate from the cold concrete and soaks up some of the splashes when cars drive by.

Wildeman, two women and another man slept near each other in a small dry spot under the awning of a building. Asked why he hadn’t gone to one of the city’s shelters for the night, he said it's often not worth waiting in line when there's little guarantee of an available spot.

"I mean, you can wait in line and hope somebody decides they can't wait no more and they leave,” he said. “But I find it's better to make sure you have food than a shelter."

Wildeman pointed out the irony that standing in line for a spot at a shelter often means getting even more wet. "There’s no shelter to be under to stay dry,” he said. “Everyone will get soaked while you’re waiting."

With temperatures expected to dip into the low 40s through Friday, followed by a long stretch of rain, a handful of local agencies and nonprofits around the Bay Area are offering additional shelter beds and space in warming centers through the weekend.

Tents line Ellis Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

That includes San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), which homeless advocates have criticized in previous years for not providing adequate emergency services during periods of rough weather.

The agency said it’s expanding the city’s existing shelter system by an additional 75 sleeping mats through Dec. 3. This week, it also began a temporary winter shelter program, run by a group of churches, that offers last-minute shelter and meals for up to seven days to those who can’t get into the existing system.

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"We wanted to lean forward and bring as many people as we can inside, given the weather," said HSH director of  strategy and external affairs Abigail Stewart-Kahn, adding that the city’s homeless outreach teams are also conducting additional wellness checks this week.

San Francisco’s year-round shelter system, which generally requires a reservation, provides homeless residents with beds for up to 90 days. Those shelters and the city’s six navigation centers can accommodate nearly 3,000 people each night. Even so, Stewart-Kahn said, there is a waitlist of about 1,000 people on any given night.

There are more than 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco, including 5,180 people living in unsheltered in tents, vehicles, or on the sidewalk, according to the city's point-in-time homeless count, conducted in January.

"We know that these expansions are [still] not meeting the need," Stewart-Kahn said, noting that Mayor London Breed has pledged to add 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020.

But there are some beds available. She said there have been empty beds in the two shelters that just added more mats, as well as in the temporary church shelters. Those seeking shelter should call 3-1-1 or to go directly to the St. Vincent De Paul Society Multi-Service Center (525 5th Street) to find all available current vacancies and get free transportation to them, she added.

Service providers in other cities throughout the region, where homeless populations have also spiked in recent years, are facing a similar demand as temperatures drop.

Laval Briston, 52, has been homeless in San Francisco for seven months. "I drink to keep warm and help deal with the elements out here on these streets," he said. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Like San Francisco, Santa Clara County began offering additional shelter beds and warming centers through the cold front.

And in Oakland, some privately run shelters are also expanding their hours and services.

"We see folks who have moderate health needs that are exacerbated by the time they spend without housing," said Sharon Cornu, executive director of St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, which offers winter emergency shelter for up to 30 seniors each night. The shelter opened on Nov. 18 this year, two weeks earlier than usual, because of the urgent need, she said.

"Most shelters have breaks during the day when they're closed, but we're trying to work around that."

KQED’s Jeremy Siegel contributed reporting to this article. 

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