One evening in late March, Wayne Earl was preaching at a chapel service for the Bay Area Rescue Mission when a man began coughing uncontrollably. Earl, the shelter’s chaplain and programs specialist, ended his sermon early. He helped the man put on a mask and called an ambulance. The man tested negative for COVID-19 and returned to the mission. The next day, he said he became a Christian. “I was absolutely humbled by the Spirit of God moving here,” Earl said.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic making their jobs harder, Earl and other mission staff members have continued to serve the homeless and preach the gospel. The mission, located in Richmond, Calif., northeast of San Francisco, previously had 42 staff members and 250 weekly volunteers to serve 275 homeless men, women, and children. Now elderly and vulnerable staff members stay home, and fewer than 100 homeless people stay at the mission: those in the yearlong addiction and poverty recovery programs and those sheltering in place.
While shelters like the Bay Area Rescue Mission scramble to help the homeless, San Francisco’s official coronavirus policies toward the homeless are incentivizing destructive behavior, particularly in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Tensions are rising between city officials and Tenderloin residents, who said in a lawsuit their neighborhood is covered in tents, feces, and needles.
The city’s approach to homelessness is “all compassion and no responsibility,” said Christopher Rufo, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. During the pandemic, San Francisco has allowed tent camping on the streets and directed police officers only to intervene in serious or violent situations. The number of tents there has nearly tripled to 400 since January.
The city rented hotel rooms for the homeless, and officials provide them with alcohol, cannabis, and methadone once there as part of its harm reduction program. The San Francisco Department of Public Health tweeted that the “harm reduction practices … help guests successfully complete isolation and quarantine.” But Rufo said the city’s overall strategy created “a magnet for the homeless from all around the region.”
On May 4, several Tenderloin residents and businesses joined the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, which is located in the neighborhood, to sue the city. Their complaint said city officials treat the Tenderloin as a “containment zone,” allowing homelessness and drug sales there but not in more affluent neighborhoods. Tenderloin business owners and residents said they are afraid to walk the streets.
According to the suit, Hastings spent $66,836 on increased security the month after the health department made its pandemic recommendations, on top of annual security costs of $2.3 million. “What is a city-wide problem should not be allowed to weigh disproportionately on a low-income working-class neighborhood,” the suit says.
Law school Dean David Faigman said the school first asked San Francisco for help, but the city did nothing. Then neighbors volunteered to be co-plaintiffs with the school.
Two days after the plaintiffs filed suit, the city of San Francisco released a revised COVID-19 plan for the Tenderloin. It acknowledged the challenges: tents blocking sidewalks, garbage and waste piling up, and people dealing in drugs. The plan recommended offering the homeless safe sleeping alternatives, reserving some streets for pedestrians, providing more garbage disposal and handwashing stations, and increasing police presence in the area. Two days later, Faigman called the plan “entirely inadequate” but hoped the two sides can find a solution: “Nothing would make me happier than to have the litigation go away and to have the Tenderloin be treated like other neighborhoods in San Francisco.”
Rufo will be surprised if the city changes course. But he said tech companies and successful businesses are questioning the value of being in San Francisco while city policies incentivize homeless people and drug users to move there: “You can only go so far with those trends before something starts to break.”