Last fall, I went to Fifth and King Streets in San Francisco, just under the on-ramp to I-280. A group of tents inhabited the space then. The ground around the tents was swept, and bicycles stood in neat lines. Residents, such as Jessica Prater, knew one another and felt safe there.
“I can trust pretty much everyone down here,” Prater said. “If for some reason something does come up missing, somebody has my back. I was a single female out here at one point you know, and I never had worries. I never carried a knife; I never carried pepper spray or any personal weapon.”
A month ago, flyers went up, warning that the encampment would have to move, that CalTrans construction would begin on March 11. And right on schedule, on Monday of last week, police officers and the city’s Homeless Outreach Team put wristbands on the camp residents and helped them load their belongings onto trucks.
Then CalTrans workers began drilling holes, putting in posts, and pouring concrete for a new fence to barricade the area from re-entry.
The people from the Fifth and King encampment were told to go to a temporary shelter set up at City of Refuge Church, a little over a mile away on Howard Street. They stayed there for three days and two nights. The church also had a “pop-up” service center, where former campers could get food and a shower, talk with social workers and get assessed for housing.
I stopped by on Tuesday last week. Because of privacy rules set by the Department of Public Health, I wasn’t allowed to talk with the displaced campers inside the shelter, but I could talk with them on the sidewalk outside.
Ray Brown, a homeless veteran and unemployed construction worker, lived with his girlfriend under the on-ramp at Fifth and King for about five months. He told me he was worried the police would arrest some of the group.
It was “scary,” Brown said. “We all believed that they were gonna come down there and run names and try to throw us in jail if they could. You know, ‘cause that’s generally what happens.”
“And what happened instead?” I asked.
“Instead,” he said, “they loaded our carts and put them in storage and gave us a place to stay, and helpin’ us, and we’re very happy.”
Inside the church, the sleeping mats were neatly pushed to one side of the room, with some blankets and pillows lying among them. About eight tables were set up on the other side. At a few, people were eating sandwiches and chatting. At a table near the front, a woman with a computer was talking intently with one of the homeless clients. The city’s Homeless Outreach Team was there to offer assessment and services. The atmosphere was calm, peaceful, even hopeful.
Fred Thompson was working as the shelter manager.
“The services we have today, we have mental health here, substance abuse,” he said. “Haircuts, massages, uh, methadone clinic, what else? Nurse-practitioners.”
He said he’d heard a positive response from the newly sheltered.
“They’re very grateful, you know, they didn’t have to sleep outside last night,” Thompson said. “One of ‘em told me, ‘My day started out today better than it did yesterday.’ ”
From the makeshift shelter, by Wednesday night, one person went into a more permanent shelter, and twenty-six were placed in Single Room Occupancy hotels.
James Thomas, who’d been homeless for almost two years, told me what getting a room means for him.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with catering and P.R. and whatnot, and getting back into those kinds of jobs requires me to actually be clean and maintained, and it was hard for me not to be able to do that,” Thomas said. “Right now I’m able to just jump right back into that and keep that, and it really makes a big difference.”
The move into an SRO comes with some expectations, according to Bevan Dufty, Director of H.O.PE., that is, Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement for the city of San Francisco. He says the new residents will work with newly assigned case managers on individual plans.
“For some people, they may not have I.D. For some people, they may qualify for S.S.I., disability, so they should apply for that, to have a source of income,” Dufty said. “For some people, it may be that they have the ability to go to work. For some people, they may need treatment.”
And, he said, those people have to follow through.
“What doesn’t work is if somebody shuts himself in a room, doesn’t want to meet with someone, doesn’t want to be accountable in terms of working on a plan and getting somewhere. That’s when you fall into trouble.”
The SROs that will house the newly sheltered are in the Tenderloin, Chinatown, and South of Market districts. Dufty says those can be challenging environments, due to drug use and small crimes in the neighborhoods, so the city considered other factors to counter those obstacles.
“The Health Department focused on trying to group people in the three buildings that they were placed that had friendships and associations, so that they would not be separated from their support network, so to speak, and we’ll see how that works,” said Dufty.
Back at the shelter, Vanessa Romo, who’d been homeless for years, told me she’s ready to make a change.
“Part of the assessment asked if you would be willing to save up money for permanent housing, so I’m assuming that when we get to the stabilization housing, that – we do know there’s case managers there, on-site, but I’m sure the case managers are gonna have us do some sort of money management plan, which for me is a good thing, because I get S.S.I. and I end up blowing off my check and having my whole check gone within six days, sometimes five,” Romo said.
Despite the general mood of optimism, at least one person I met was upset. I found Brian Georgie, homeless for five years, sitting on the curb outside the City of Refuge Church.
“And they told me that they can’t help me, that they don’t have enough rooms, but down there they told us that they had a room for each and every person,” Georgie said.
Georgie lifted his cap to reveal hair cropped close to his skull:
“The only thing that they’ve offered us,” he said, “is a haircut.”
Because of epilepsy, Georgie has a therapy animal, a pit bull he’s raised since she was a puppy. He used to have a case manager through the Homeless Outreach Team, but when he went to Washington for a family emergency and missed an appointment, he said, his case was closed. He lost his former SRO room. Now he’s back to square one.
“It seems to me they’re playing a favoritism role here, with those that they’ve never encountered before, compared to those that they already know that have problems,” Georgie said.
H.O.P.E. Director Bevan Dufty says they’re trying to get to everyone. And he says that setting up a shelter in which to house a group temporarily, before offering transitional housing, may prove to be a useful model.
“My phone’s already ringing; my emails are coming in from people with suggestions. Certainly one of the reasons we prioritized this area was because there were a large number of people there,” said Dufty. “I definitely think that of the neighborhoods, South of Market is the most affected area, but there are definitely other parts of the city that have chronic homelessness.”
On my way home, I see that for myself. Near the corner of 5th and Bryant, I see grocery carts, sleeping bags, bundles of clothing, people napping in the shade. One bright-faced woman holds out a cup by the roadside. The new fence near the CalTrain terminus might have disrupted the cycle of homelessness for some people, but many others still wait for help.