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San Francisco Shifts From Trashing Homeless Camps To Sanctioning Them Amid COVID-19


Many cities are struggling with the confluence of two problems - the coronavirus and homelessness. In San Francisco, people without housing will now be able to stay in official tent encampments. It's something the city has resisted in the past, but COVID-19 has forced officials to take another look. Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez is with us now to lay out what's going on. He's a reporter with member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome.


CHANG: So as I just mentioned, the city, it's been long reluctant to make tent encampments official. So explain how the coronavirus specifically changed the calculus here.

RODRIGUEZ: You know, San Francisco had a bit of a scare. There was an outbreak at the city's largest homeless shelter with more than 90 people testing positive for COVID-19, most of them homeless people, though some staff. So, you know, they had closed all the shelters, and now all the city's homeless population are just out on the streets. So they're making tent encampments official in kind of a bid to socially distance people who might otherwise be on the streets too close together.

CHANG: And I understand this move was not exactly the city's first choice. So what other solutions had San Francisco been trying in order to prevent further outbreaks among the homeless?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. There's a bit of an ideological divide in San Francisco. You know, our equivalent to a city council, the board of supervisors, wants the homeless to be housed in hotels and already some are. The mayor has said that housing the entire homeless population in hotels is unreasonable but not because of cost but because of city staffing shortages. And these encampments, which are planned to be about five total when it's all through, are not a perfect solution either. They only house about 50 to 70 people each. And San Francisco has more than 7,000 people living on the streets.

CHANG: Well, what do you think the likelihood is that these new city-sanctioned camps will be here to stay?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, the history of tent encampments in San Francisco is a fraught one. San Francisco government has long actually fought against them. Police have slashed them with knives. Staff have thrown them into garbage trucks and crushed them. So city hall has been saying that when the COVID pandemic is over, they're going to shuffle people back into shelters. But, you know, that prompts another question. When will the pandemic truly be over? You know, this could stretch for months. It could swing back. This might mean that the encampments that are official might be here for a long time to come.

CHANG: Well, I know that you've been talking to homeless individuals as well. How have some of them been reacting to the mayor's plans for making these encampments official?

RODRIGUEZ: You know, it's opposite ends - right? - as you would imagine. One woman I spoke to in San Francisco's Bayview, a historically black neighborhood, was living in her car for months and working at a local restaurant. And she was a single solitary paycheck away from saving enough money to go apartment hunting with her partner. COVID-19 hit two weeks before that paycheck, and she lost her job. So now she's living in a tent in the park, and she was so grateful that she was able to finally let her legs stretch. And she called it a godsend because she was no longer in constant fear of nighttime car break-ins. And in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood, there is a unsanctioned tent encampment with, like, 200 people and 90 tents all piled up on one another. And they're going to make that one of the first sanctioned ones and socially distance them. One man there said he was a drug addict, and he told me he'd rather have a hotel room. He said, you know, people will be too close together in the tents whether they're socially distant or not. And he just doesn't want to die of COVID-19 while he's trying to kick his drug habit and get his life back in order.

CHANG: Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez is a reporter with member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you, Joe.

RODRIGUEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez