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An epidemic situation Vulnerable homeless population hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic

As the Bay Area issued social distancing guidelines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people experiencing homelessness found them impossible to follow.

Dense shelters and crowded encampments are breeding grounds for the virus, and research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that people experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized and two to three times as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to the general population.

To help with the pandemic response effort, Destination: Home, a Santa Clara County organization working to end homelessness, became activated as one of the county’s Emergency Operations Centers, typically used for crisis situations like natural disasters.

“We've been working to assist [the] homeless and unsheltered because both have a harder time practicing social distancing or other preventive measures,” said David Low, Director of Policy and Communications at Destination: Home.

Destination: Home has been helping to open mass shelters and distribute sanitation supplies. On March 23, it also launched a 11 million dollar financial assistance initiative to aid families at risk of becoming homeless as a result of the pandemic. The organization received 4,500 applications within three days, with 10,000 households on the waitlist.

Compass Family Services, an organization dedicated to helping homeless families in San Francisco achieve housing stability, has also stepped up to house the homeless. According to Anthony Carrasco, the external affairs and policy manager at Company Family Services, the organization is currently housing around 60 families in hotel rooms.

“Hotel rooms are far superior to live in than congregate housing shelters, because living in hotel rooms allows the homeless to actually social distance and follow shelter-in-place guidelines,” Carrasco said.

But more remains to be done. A count conducted on Jan. 24, 2019 by the city of San Francisco reported 9,784 homeless individuals in the city, including people staying in housing shelters, jails and hospitals. According to Carrasco, this number is far higher now, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced many more tenants out of their apartments.

Carrasco thinks that one way that the government can help is to strike out rental debt for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, noting that it is far cheaper to prevent a family from being homeless than to help a family off the streets.

The Bay Area already faced a growing homelessness problem prior to the pandemic. The latest PIT count in 2019 estimated that over 34,000 people were homeless in the Bay Area, an increase of over 22 percent since 2017.

The actual number of people experiencing homelessness in the Bay is likely to be higher. PIT counts can underestimate these numbers by two to three times due to technical difficulties and seasonal differences in rates of homelessness.

As opposed to New York, which is able to provide shelter to 95 percent of its homeless population, the Bay Area suffers from a lack of affordable or government-subsidized housing. 67 percent of the Bay Area homeless population in 2017 was unsheltered, living in cars, encampments, on the streets and elsewhere.

Even prior to the pandemic, San Francisco shelters already had all of their beds occupied, leaving at least 5,000 people unsheltered.

What causes so many people in the Bay Area to become homeless? Destination: Home said it’s fundamentally because of a lack of affordable housing, particularly for low-income residents.

"When folks can't find an affordable place to live, they become severely rent-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent utilities, and become just one emergency away from ending up on the street," Low said.

The best way for Silicon Valley residents to help, Low said, is to help tackle the systemic driver of homelessness by advocating for more affordable housing units to be built.

We need people to use their voice, show up to city council meetings, write the councilors while these decisions are being made to make sure that these developments are getting built,” Low said.
This close-up photo shows the contents of a shopping cart on the sidewalk on Kiely Blvd., around the corner from the upper school. The latest PIT count in 2019 estimated that over 34,000 people were homeless in the Bay Area, an increase of over 22 percent since 2017. (Gloria Zhang)

Raising awareness helps as well. People experiencing homelessness often face dehumanization and stigma from other people in their communities who don’t know of or understand their struggles.

“We’re just people who have happened on mishaps and stuff like that,” Rudy, who lives at the I-280 off-ramp across the street from the upper school, said. “We’re no different than anyone.”

From San Jose to Oakland to Santa Rosa, these are some of their stories.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: Matthew Jiang ('20) documented life at San Jose Japantown encampment

A homeless man with a grocery bag walked into a homeless encampment at the light rail near San Jose's Japantown in February. (Provided by Matthew Jiang)

A little ways outside of San Jose’s Japantown, pressed up against the walls lining the Winchester light rail tracks, lies a homeless encampment. Tarps and tents stand in stark juxtaposition to the apartment complexes towering above the wall that divides them.

In the fall of 2018, Matthew Jiang ('20), who, at the time, was volunteering at Loaves and Fishes Family Soup Kitchen, ventured out past his workplace on a whim. It led him to the homeless encampment along the light rail.

“As people they were approachable,” Matthew said. “They were, I would say relatively open to speaking about their experiences. A lot of them lived lives that honestly weren’t that different from ours. The only thing that was really different was that I was of a higher socioeconomic status than they were.”

Spending the day in the camp and witnessing how their situations brought them together in a sort of brotherhood, Matthew learned of the circumstances that drove everyone there to homelessness.

“They were all brought together by their circumstances,” Matthew said. “They all referred to each other as friends, even brothers. They spent a lot of their time working with and talking to one another, because I think as a homeless person, there isn’t really much of a community to really fall back upon, given that you’re on the streets and really just sort of fight to live, so they just sort of found that sense of belonging among their peers.”

Worn-out children's shoes lay in dry leaves in a homeless encampment near San Jose's Japantown in February. (Provided by Matthew Jiang)

Armed with his camera and an assignment from his Advanced Photography class, Matthew set out to document his experiences with these people. While they didn’t allow him to photograph them themselves, Matthew was able to capture some snapshots of their lives, from the possessions they owned to the spare bike parts littering the camp for the bike repair business they worked for spare change.

I wanted those photos to serve as a kind of reminder of their existence and their value as human beings, like these objects sort of serve as sentimentals. I guess one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I know that’s kind of like a cliche phrase, but I feel like that accurately describes the stuff I took pictures of," Matthew said.

This experience has influenced much of his current photography.

“From then on my concentration in photography has largely been street photography, just capturing subjects in the moment and in a way that I guess speaks about them and also the environment around them and how they interact with that environment,” Matthew said.

As he progresses in his career as a photographer, Matthew hopes to further remind society of its humanity through his art.

Be the change you wish to see: Arusha Patil (12) alleviates struggles of homelessness in Sunnyvale shelter

Just across the South Bay Freeway, not even a mile away from the expansive Microsoft and Google campuses in Sunnyvale, stands an old, weathered building, notably different from the new corporate offices that surround it on all sides. Here, the Sunnyvale County Winter Shelter, run as a collaborative effort between Santa Clara County and the nonprofit organization HomeFirst, welcomes individuals and families in need of year-round shelter and provides them with beds, meals and supportive services.

As part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project, Arusha Patil (12) has been visiting this homeless shelter since the summer of 2019 and is currently working with administrators to install two new rooms in the building: a computer library and a quiet area for mindfulness.

“I chose [to work with] the homeless community because of my experiences with them as an individual, like the people that I’ve talked to on the street or people that I’ve run into on the bus or airplane,” she said. “That made me a lot more curious about the homeless experience and how I could help alleviate their struggles and pains.”

After speaking with residents of the Sunnyvale County Winter Shelter, listening to their life stories and the challenges they face on a daily basis, Arusha hoped the rooms she will help create can not only improve the standard of living for the over 100 people there, but also provide them with the opportunity to get back on their feet and recover from past hardships.

“I think one of the most important aspects of [addressing] homelessness is to give [people] access to the Internet or a constant source of information, as well as job postings. It will empower people to seek out and find resources and opportunities,” she said.

These resources can help put people on a path to more stable housing.

“Giving the Internet as a tool to homeless individuals will definitely increase their chances of landing a job that will allow them a stable salary that enables them to pay for the ridiculous housing costs in the Bay Area,” Arusha said.

Arusha added that she has seen children and teenagers living at the shelters being forced to study on their mattresses, with their homework and textbooks piled next to them, because there is nowhere else they can study.

She hopes establishing a meditation or silent reading room could provide a distraction-free area for residents, away from the overwhelming clamor of conversations or the television set.

I work on a desk, and I still have trouble focusing — can you imagine working and being tested on material in an environment where everyone is talking, where you may not even feel completely safe? So, how can we create an environment to allow people to feel more comfortable, even when they’re homeless?" Arusha said.

Arusha hopes to also spread a more pervasive message among others in the Bay Area through her community service — that the negative perceptions and attitudes surrounding homelessness are incorrect and need to be abandoned.

“One thing I’ve observed is that the identity of an individual when they experience homelessness is completely conflicted and divided because — at least if you’re on the street — you’re passed by people who often don’t give you any acknowledgement,” Arusha said. “There’s no way that’s going to feel good if you’re standing on the street and you objectively don’t look like you’re doing well, but no one stops to say anything to you. It’s like you’re no longer a person, which is clearly just wrong.”

In response to such harmful stereotypes, she encourages others to do their part in addressing homelessness in their local community.

“The first step is to care. Talk to people, learn how to care. I feel like the homeless community is a community of such deep individuals; all of us are missing out if you don’t talk to them,” Arusha said. “The second step is a lot harder: [it is] to invest. Invest in people that you meet, whether that be emotionally with your time or even as a sponsor.”

Visual arts teacher Joshua Martinez lends filmmaking skills to San Francisco’s North Beach Citizens

Visual arts teacher Joshua Martinez was interviewed about his filmmaking work with homelessness organization North Beach Citizens by Eric Fang ('20) and Nina Gee ('20) in January. (Eric Fang, Nina Gee)

Four years ago, a friend of upper school visual arts teacher Joshua Martinez introduced him to North Beach Citizens, an organization in North Beach, San Francisco, that helps people experiencing homelessness navigate their economic and employment situations.

Clients who come in are offered jobs in North Beach Citizens cleaning, organizing or helping out other people based on their skill sets. Volunteer workers will help them navigate finding a spot in a shelter and securing more permanent employment.

In this way, North Beach Citizens functions similarly to San Francisco’s “navigation centers,” which the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing set up in 2015 to provide places for unsheltered people to have a meal and meet with case workers while finding more permanent housing.

“They will sort of break it down and they’ll say, okay, in order to get a job, you need a driver’s license, or you need a mailing address, and that will help people get those things so that they can eventually start to be able to access a little bit more security,” Martinez said.

Although Martinez doesn’t volunteer at North Beach Citizens regularly, he and his wife Christina, a filmmaker, have helped them make promotional fundraising videos.

We need to figure out ways to do what North Beach Citizens is doing on a larger scale and everywhere,” Martinez said.

Two years ago, Martinez’s advisory and Director of Business and Entrepreneurial Programs Juston Glass’s advisory visited North Beach Citizens to decorate a Christmas tree for the freshman service trip.

Martinez appreciates that North Beach Citizens provides a unique strategy to combat homelessness.

“Very often people will go out and just hand out a bunch of stuff. And very often that doesn’t really help because the person who receives it doesn’t know what to do with it or doesn’t have an immediate use for it, and then it can’t get stored somewhere. So this sort of systemic approach seems to be a much more viable approach," Martinez said.

Prominent film director Francis Ford Coppola helped start the organization in the spring of 2000, and he now hosts annual fundraisers to raise awareness about North Beach Citizens and the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area.

“[Christina and I] would come out with the dinners, and then we would attend and make some donations,” Martinez said. “So it’s not like we’re there all the time, but we try to promote it as much as possible.”

North Beach Citizens operates on a small-scale, so Martinez hopes that more neighborhoods take the initiative to start similar organizations that help ameliorate the growing homelessness problem in San Francisco.

Bike trail for some, home for others: Life in the 2-mile-long Santa Rosa trail encampment before it was cleared

Only a chain-link fence separates the Joe Rodota Trail, a pedestrian and bike path, from California State Route 12 in Santa Rosa. In January, city officials relocated over 250 individuals living at the trail encampment. (Eric Fang)

Only a chain-link fence separates the Joe Rodota Trail, a pedestrian and bike path, from California State Route 12 in Santa Rosa. The whooshing sound of cars on the expressway is constant, loud and unavoidable.

For the over 250 people living in the two mile-long encampment on the trail before Jan. 31, that sound formed the backdrop to their daily lives.

Over the month of January, city officials relocated the individuals living at the trail encampment, sending some to shelters across the city and some to temporary “pallet buildings” with bunk beds, heat and electricity in Los Guilicos in East Santa Rosa, a two-hour drive from the trail. Others were forced to set up their tents elsewhere or face possible arrest.

A flyer pasted on the door of a portable toilet on the trail on Jan. 20 read, “The Choice is Yours…ON JANUARY 31, THE TRAIL WILL BE CLEARED! You will have to decide on one of these: 1) Shelter in the Pallet House, 2) Stay on the trail and face criminal charges, 3) Set up your camp somewhere else, 4) Rent your own apartment or rent some kind of a something with a group.”

Life on the trail was hard. Temperatures dipped dramatically at night, and living in tents or under tarps became even more miserable when it rained.

But for many people who lived on the Joe Rodota Trail, the encampment offered a sense of security and community. In other words, it was home.

Joseph Vicino, 37, had been living on the trail with his dog, Rocky, for the past six months, ever since his trailer got towed with all his money and belongings.

“It’s nice having a place to go without getting kicked out every morning and having to move your stuff because if you get kicked out every morning, how would you bring all your stuff with you. I’d only [be able to] carry what I can fit in my backpack, and it’d be hard to live like that," Vicino said.

Joseph Vicino, 37, had been living on the trail with his dog, Rocky, for the past six months, ever since his trailer got towed with all his money and belongings. Skyrocketing rents in Santa Rosa, brought on by the destruction of the 2017 Tubbs fire, forced Vicino out of his previous home. (Eric Fang)

Before becoming unsheltered, Vicino had owned a home on Stony Point Road in West Santa Rosa. However due to financial struggles, like losing his construction job with Ghilotti Bros., Inc. in 2017, he sold his house and began renting a smaller home in Coffey Park, a large residential neighborhood in North Santa Rosa.

Then came the 2017 Tubbs fire, which devastated large swaths of the outlying residential communities of Santa Rosa from Oct. 8-31.

5,500 homes were destroyed in the flames. Although Vicino’s own home was spared from the fire, nearly every house in Coffey Park was burned down.

With more than 3,000 homes, or five percent of the housing stock, destroyed in Santa Rosa alone, rent skyrocketed.

From 2016 to the end of 2017, the city saw a 9.3 percent increase in housing prices, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s 2018 City Profile Report. The report also indicated that Santa Rosa’s 2017 rental vacancy rate was 2.7 percent, lower than that of the county (3.3 percent), state (3.8 percent) and nation (6.2 percent).

“Rent just got really high after the [Tubbs] fire, and I lost my roommate so I just wasn’t able to keep my house,” Vicino said. “I bought a motorhome and moved back to a property on Stony Point Road but that got foreclosed. Then my car got stolen.”

It was hard hit after hard hit. Now, after losing his trailer and becoming unsheltered, Vicino’s future remains uncertain.

I don’t have a plan [when the trail is cleared]. Now it is just to stay warm for the night. I slept outside last night. I only got this tent today, and it was freezing with just me and the dog. My main concern is how to feed us and get warm for the night and where to shower," Vicino said.

Vicino’s experience of losing his home after a wildfire is a common one in Sonoma County, which has seen the Kincade Fire, Tubbs Fire, Nuns Fire, Atlas Fire, Pocket Fire and Valley Fire since 2015.

“I just heard from a gentleman who was burned out in Paradise,” Adrienne Lauby, founder of the Sonoma County nonprofit Homeless Action, said. “He’s now living in an RV and getting harrassed by the police. He said he went down to the Joe Rodota Trail, and he found 11 people who were burned out from Paradise.”

Clothes and bags line a fence in the Santa Rosa trail. Over 250 people lived at the two mile-long encampment before January, when city officials began relocating all of the individuals living at the trail. (Eric Fang)

Lauby founded Homeless Action to help advocate for people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County. The group holds weekly community meetings, protests and press conferences.

While Santa Rosa has started some programs and initiatives to address the city’s homelessness, like emergency shelters, day services, street outreach and rental assistance, Lauby said more systemic problems remain.

Probably the biggest reason for homelessness in the Bay Area is that wages and rent don’t match. The wages need to go up. We need to have tenant protections and some kind of rent control," Lauby said.

Lauby started her activism to end homelessness after being an advocate for disability issues for much of her life. She noticed a large overlap between disability and homelessness.

According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal partnership to end homelessness, 24 percent of people who are chronically homeless in the U.S. have a disability.

Savannah Carlson, a volunteer with the HIV prevention organization Face to Face, noted that many on the Joe Rodota Trail have disabilities as well. On Jan. 20, Carlson and other volunteers were working to prevent drug overdose and HIV infection in the encampment by picking up used syringes and giving out clean needles, condoms and Narcan, a medication used to treat opioid overdoses.

Savanah Carlson (right) volunteers on the Joe Rodota trail with the HIV prevention organization Face to Face. Carlson and other volunteers worked to prevent drug overdose and HIV infection in the encampment by picking up used syringes and giving out clean needles, condoms and Narcan, a medication used to treat opioid overdoses. (Eric Fang)

“My godmother is disabled, and she has to live on $1,100 a month, and that is just not feasible for most people,” Carlson said. “There are some people who are here because of trauma, like veterans, and post-traumatic stress disorder is really common with people who are assaulted, like women who are raped.”

Disabilities and other structural barriers prevent many people in the encampment from accessing social services, according to Mary Lopez, 58, who has lived on the trail for three months.

“I think [social services] should just come to us and talk to us because a lot of times it’s hard for us to walk,” Lopez said. “We don’t have money to take the bus. I’ve seen a lot of people like that. Or their health is bad or they’re disabled.”

These obstacles also prevent many people from finding shelter.

Mary Lopez, 58, had lived on the Joe Rodota trail for three months. She is currently looking for a roommate who can help make rent affordable. (Eric Fang)

“Right now, a lot of the shelters are full. So we just have to keep on calling. Or they can call us if we have a cell phone. If not, that’s the hard thing too, if we don’t have a cell phone or we don’t have money, that’s just really hard, and we lose our spot, so we’re stuck,” Lopez said.

Lopez has called at least four shelters, all of which are full. She’s currently looking for a roommate who can help make rent affordable.

For some people, shelters often aren’t viable solutions. Many shelters can’t accommodate pets or families.

Cina Hone, 49, has lived on the Joe Rodota Trail since August and been unsheltered for 27 years. Most shelters won’t let her bring her 12-year-old chihuahua with her.

Cina Hone, 49, has lived on the Joe Rodota Trail since August and been unsheltered for 27 years. Most shelters won’t let her bring her 12-year-old chihuahua, named Little Mama, with her. (Eric Fang)

“This right here is Little Mama. She saved my life and I saved hers,” Hone said.

She began crying as she brought her dog out from under the large beige tent she was sitting under.

“The day she was brought to me, I was going to wait until dark, and I was going to commit suicide that night,” Hone said. “My friend brought her to me an hour before dark and walked away. He said, ‘You need it as much as it needs you,’ and he walked away.”

While Hone was glad for the pallet buildings that the city had constructed, she believed it’s just a band-aid on a larger problem and would disperse the community that people on the trail had built.

As Hone talked, several people walking or biking by on the trail nodded and called out to her.

“Someone was asking me what is the difference between a community and a neighborhood. How many people in those houses over there personally talk to their neighbor?" Hone said, after gesturing at the suburban houses that backed up to the trail. "We [the people on the trail] all interact with each other. If one person needs help, we band together to help them."

The city’s decision to clear the encampment resulted in part from the tension it created among people in the nearby neighborhoods, who complained that the encampment brought rat infestations, drugs and crime.

“The neighbors have legitimate concerns. It’s not easy having an unregulated homeless camp in your backyard, and it does come with its jeopardies,” Lauby said. “That said, a lot of what they’re going on is fear-based and rumors and ‘Oh, one thing happened one time, so now I’m sure that it’s happened many times.’”

Mattie Morgan, a Santa Rosa native who has worked at a Goodwill next to the trail for two months, said that people from the encampment sometimes steal from the store. However, she said, many people not from the encampment also steal from the store.

Donna Panett, a supervisor at the Goodwill, agreed with Morgan and stressed that individual people on the trail, and elsewhere in the city and county, required individual solutions.

No matter how you look at it and how you portray it, they are all still people, just like everyone else who walks through this store. These people are looked at because it impacts a path and homeowners who use the trails, but what about everybody who doesn’t have a place outside of this path?” Panett said.

While the Joe Rodota Trail encampment may be gone, the city, the county and the larger Bay Area have a long road ahead to end homelessness in the area, a problem intricately tied to the ongoing housing crisis.

“Homelessness is not a charity issue. It’s a political issue. It has to do with how we treat people who are in a different income bracket, who are poorer than average,” Lauby said. “It really requires us as a community to say, ‘No. This isn’t acceptable. Whatever people did or do or whatever kind of lives they have, they shouldn’t have to sleep under a bush at night.’”

The following photos are portraits of people from the Santa Rosa encampment. Formerly unsheltered volunteer Stephens Williams stands on the Joe Rodota trail. Williams recently found housing in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Eric Fang)

"Bicycle Dave," who did not wish to disclose his full name, helps individuals living on the Joe Rodota trail fix their bicycles. Dave repairs the bikes free of charge. (Eric Fang)

Two people reclined near a makeshift fire in January. From 2016 to the end of 2017, Santa Rosa saw a 9.3 percent increase in housing prices. (Eric Fang)