Closed community spaces due to coronavirus will leave the homeless out in the cold — it’s a disgrace

By Stacy Torres, Special to CalMatters

“Stay home.” Easier said than done for the unhoused.

The state of California is now under a shelter-in-place order not to leave home except for “essential needs.” The order exempts “individuals experiencing homelessness” but urges them “to find shelter and government agencies to provide it.” 

While Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new executive order authorizes $150 million to increase shelter beds, lease hotel rooms and distribute 1,309 newly purchased trailers, many of the homeless will still be left on the streets with nowhere to go.

Unhoused people living on the streets, in encampments, in cars and RVs are among the most vulnerable to infection. California has more than 150,000 homeless residents and the largest proportion of unsheltered residents, who face increased risk of illness, violence and death.

I volunteer with The Gubbio Project, which provides unhoused people with a safe place to sleep and rest in two San Francisco churches. As an assistant hospitality monitor at St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin, I check on people slumbering in pews or on the floor and make sure they are comfortable and still breathing. I also hand out hygiene items, over-the-counter medication and the occasional rosary to those who ask.

The shelter-in-place order has also forced Gubbio to close their doors for now. I’m only starting to recognize familiar faces; I wonder what will happen to them. Among the bittersweet revelations I’ve had is learning names as I enter them into a log to track items like blankets, razors and socks. How many had I passed on the street before without really looking?

Many guests have silver hair and deeply wrinkled faces, echoing UC San Francisco Professor Margot Kuschel’s landmark study revealing the rise in older adults experiencing homelessness.

They have other needs I assist with too, such as helping a man from his pew into his wheelchair. An older man with a cane kindly warned me, “You’re going to need another pair of gloves,” and asked for help getting his shoe on. As I knelt and pulled his slipper over his foot he pointed to a painful, bulging bump below his ankle. Another man dragging his foot asked if we had any places for “disabled people to rest.” I offered him the empty first pew near the door. Where are they now?

With closures of community spaces such as libraries, people have almost nowhere left to go indoors for warmth. After volunteering I often head to the San Francisco Main Public Library and see a regular Gubbio guest writing in a spiral-bound notebook with more cheer than I muster most days. After a dry winter, the rain’s finally falling. Where is he now?

Besides shelter from rain, a pillow is a luxury that many people don’t have. On my last volunteer shift a man in his late 50s, I’m guessing, showed me a 6-inch jagged stitch across his head. Brain surgery? An attack? I didn’t know. But I knew he couldn’t get into the Navigation Center for emergency shelter the night before and slept with his head on the sidewalk. He asked for a pillow. We didn’t have any. After handing him band-aids and cough drops, I could only suggest that he search the “free bin” for discarded clothing to fold into a makeshift pillow to rest his head. Where is he now?

Watching full-time workers in nonprofits risking so much to tend to the sick, the tired, and the poor has only strengthened my commitment to return to volunteering as soon as possible. Till then I’ll adhere to shelter-in-place orders. I have the privilege of working from home with a well-stocked pantry, shower and sink, and a warm bed with a pillow. I’ll drop off food and supplies to the homeless encampment near my home when I go to the market and donate to the organization where I volunteer. I’ll press my government officials to do better.

We are afraid, some understandably more than others. But we must be there for our neighbors, including our unhoused neighbors, in whatever form that takes. Remember, they’re helping too. And those who have more, should give more (I’m looking at you Bloomberg, Bezos and Steyer).

As “Mister Rogers” urged in disasters, look to the helpers. I strive to be a helper and a companion. Who will you be?


Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, [email protected] She has also written about boomers and young people and police response to mental illness.

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