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El Nino is a public health crisis — and SF is dropping the ball

The clusterfuck that is City Hall's approach to handling homeless people in a life-threatening situation


El Nino is here, and the storms will get worse in the next few weeks. This has created a state of emergency for the people who are homeless and are forced to endure the harshness of the rain and cold in the streets. While most of us are sitting inside, getting filled up with that cozy feeling while the rains pours down outside, or perhaps getting woken up from the loud sound of rain and wind, there are thousands of San Franciscans who are shivering with cold and wondering how things exactly got this bad. Meanwhile, there has been plenty of media coverage about the city’s response to the El Nino rains, but very little of it has delved much deeper then what the public relations machine has been pumping out from City Hall.

The city's emergency shelter and notification system has serious problems
The city’s emergency shelter and notification system has serious problems

The Chronicle, for example, published a list of all the shelters that city officials said they were planning on opening. It is a helpful list, especially if we have an earthquake and thousands besides poor people lose their housing; then the city might just open up all the 1,200 beds.

In reality, city officials have developed an overly complex formula that depends on unreliable weather projections 48 hours in advance that predict more than one inch a day for more than 48 hours, winds, and temperatures below 40 degrees. The problem, bedsides the unreliability of the forecast, is getting the shelter staffed and the logistics in place, which seems to get in the way of getting the word out.  Beyond the short notice, making that almost impossible, community based organizations have so far either not been notified, or like last week, notified at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon.

One option is to use the free city services call line, 311. This weekend while it was pouring, I personally called 311 and they operator did not know of a shelter, but according to city officials, that was a fluke. They got about 42 calls asking for shelter and gave information out, and 311 should now have the information in the computer and Human Services shared the computer screen with me. Nonetheless, when we do outreach to homeless people, no one knows about the shelters, where to go, or when they are open, or even to call 311.

El Nino is a public health crisis. People living on our streets are at high risk for pneumonia or of dying from exposure. On a recent outreach, our volunteer reported that everyone she came in contact with was drenched and so were their belongings. She could not help but notice a lot of people were barefoot or wearing soaked socks.

The Super Bowl is around the corner, and so sweeps are even more common than usual.  According to one dripping young woman, the Department of Public Works and the police did a sweep of her encampment at 4th and Harrison at 6am — during the downpour. She was told they needed to “move along” and were not informed of any El Nino shelter, even though at that particular time one happened to be open. She and her group were told that they need to “move along” until after the Stupid Bowl events and that an area that is considered a “safe zone” is at Bryant and 7th, which so happens to be the location of the county jail.

Meanwhile a bunch of dry areas have been fenced off in the past two weeks.  They are under freeways, away from businesses and residential areas, but off limits to those seeking shelter. In the middle of the rains, there are empty spaces where large encampments were just last week, enclosed with fences topped with razor blades. Meanwhile most homeless people are asking and searching for where they can go without getting harassed. That seems to be the question of the month.

Very few beds are being opened up, and by the time word gets out about them, they are closed down again because it stops raining. With very few homeless people having the information they need to get the shelter, there are empty shelters beds, and the narrative that people are refusing services gets falsely promoted, and the city is justified in a meek response. Meanwhile, folks forced to sleep on the streets are miserable and many are getting sick.

The good news is the city is planning on opening a shelter out at the pier that will stay open all winter. This, despite the location, is a big relief. It will be easy to get the word out, and will be easy to access without all the usual hoops to jump through, and without the various restrictions. It will also stay open all day. At the very least, folks who are sleep deprived can stay dry and get some badly needed rest.

A record of rain shelter beds by number so far this year

Tuesday January 5th

It has been pouring for three days solid.

City opens up 75 beds in cafeterias of existing shelters

No one is notified

People seeking shelter at drop-in are turned away because they don’t know


Wednesday January 6

Shelter stays open

Still no one is notified


St. Anthony’s opens a rain-weather shelter and keeps it open.  Shelter is full on the first night.


Friday January 8

Gene Friend and Mission Rec are open for one night (room for 50 at each)

No one is notified again, except for HOT team letting some folks know

City reports shelters are underutilized, inferring no need for more


Tuesday January 12

City opens up 75 beds in cafeterias of existing shelters


Sunday, January 17, 2016:

It has been pouring all weekend

The city opens up Mission Rec and Gene Friend and closes them Tuesday morning.

Community providers were notified of the opening late Friday afternoon before the three-day weekend.

January 21st, 2016

  • MSC South Shelter, 525 5th Street (at Bryant), will add 25 shelter spaces.
  • ECS – Next Door Shelter, 1001 Polk Street (at Geary), will add 50 shelter spaces.
  • Larkin Street Youth Services will add 10 shelter spaces at 869 Ellis Street (between Van Ness & Polk) and will add 5 shelter spaces at 1020 Haight Street (at Broderick) for youth ages 18 to 24. Please note, Larkin Street will do their own outreach to fill these spaces, however youth can go directly to one of these locations for shelter.


There will be shelter spaces for homeless people at the two following locations:

  • St. Anthony’s, 121 Golden Gate Avenue, will provide 60 shelter spaces. The Gubbio Project provides shelter from the elements during the day for homeless people.  This group of people will be referred to St. Anthony’s during the evening for a place to sleep.
  • Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, 165 Capp Street (near 16th & Mission Streets), will provide 15 shelter spaces.

Activate emergency pop-up shelter:

  • H.S.A. will open a pop-up shelter at SF County Fair Building (Hall of Flowers, 1199 9th Ave) and will have the ability to bring indoors up to 100 homeless men and women. The Hall of Flowers does not have the capacity to take in pets.



  1. Try calling 211. A free Info and referral service open 24/7 . 311 is more for city municipal services where 211 deals with human services and has info on most of the non-profit organizations in the area.

  2. Try calling 211. A free Info and referral service open 24/7 . 311 is more for city municipal services where 211 deals with human services and has info on most of the non-profit organizations in the area.

  3. The US is one of the wealthier nations in the world and we spend more than 50% on “dfense” and less than 10% on social services. That is “-dropping the ball”.

  4. And where is Ron Conway who has made billions with Airbnb when this occurs in his hometown? Special place in hell for those who rip off this city while the poor suffer needlessly.

  5. What does out at the pier mean? Could that potentially be a big space? Those pier buildings are very large. If they have any empty ones, that could potentially be a way to get alot of people out of the rain?

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