by Maria Victoria Ahearne-Rosales, Beds 4 Bayview Coalition
When the shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 17 in San Francisco, it would be safe to assume the order referred to those who had shelter. For the rest of our residents with no shelter, there would be no relief.
According to the San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count & Survey, our city’s unhoused population has risen from 6,858 in 2017 to 8,035 in 2020. Carrying the second highest population of unhoused residents is District 10, with 1,841 total. Of those, 1,841 people, 313 are considered “sheltered,” leaving 1,528 “unsheltered” in District 10.
To further impact our unhoused population, shelters and navigation centers started to close. Describing what it was like when COVID hit Bayview Hunters Point, sitting in the Southeast corner of D10, is Gwendolyn Westbrook, CEO of United Council of Human Services, aka Mother Brown’s Dining Room:
“We went from serving 400 meals on a regular day to over 1,400 meals a day. Then the city closed the shelters. Then we had to decrease our services. Because of social distancing, our space would only allow us to have 25-30 people a mandatory 6 feet apart from each other. Whereas before, we used to have room for 130 people, upstairs and downstairs.
We were told we could no longer do that. That meant that those 100 people were out on the streets. That’s what the heartbreak was. That’s what moved us to get out there to the park.
With that being said, at a meeting with the Beds 4 Bayview community, we all came up with the solution; “Let’s go to Martin Luther King Park.” There’s no parking lot, and who wants to sleep on cement? At least this way they have some cushioning with the grass.”
On April 9 at 10:00 a.m., community activists walked into MLK Park and created a safe tent shelter-in-place space for 60 of their neighbors. After six hours of measuring, hammering in stakes, chalking and roping the grass, a few unhoused folks moved in.
By 8:30 p.m., the same day, April 9, Recreation and Parks Department attempted to clear out the unhoused residents of the park. After discussion between Michelle Pierce of Bayview Hunters Point Advocates and Beds 4 Bayview, and Rec and Park Supervisor Santiago, it was decided the residents would stay undisturbed until further orders.
At 10:00 a.m. on April 10, further orders came: Unhoused folks were told to leave and were cleared out. The first attempt to move into MLK Park had failed.
Beds 4 Bayview under Mother Brown’s leadership awaited sanctioning to return to the park. After waiting almost two weeks, no permission was granted and COVID-19 was still on the incline in San Francisco.
Thursday, April 23, the community came back. This time the tents were laid out first, and then within the day, six tenants came in. Within the week, 40 tenants came in.
Here is the narrative from the local female leadership that led to the occupation of the park, and the tenants who live in the park today.
“Honestly, when the state of emergency was announced, I did not understand. The following week, I was thankful Mayor Breed called it,” said Gloria Berry of Beds 4 Bayview and the Democratic County Central Committee.
“Then I became very concerned about homeless people not being able to shelter in place. I’ve been to Next Door shelter and lived in transitional housing and would have been so scared if the pandemic hit during my homeless times.
“I thought the hotel solution was going to come to fruition but realized it would not be a reality for the homeless in Bayview. So here we are, running a tent site in a park with donations and volunteers. I pray our City won’t pay dearly for this lack of humanity.”
Michelle Pierce of Bayview Hunters Point Advocates stated: “The most important thing for people to know is that this is a place where people can come and be safe. I think that is the greatest concern, which is particularly the unhoused always get forgotten when there is an emergency, including in a situation where people are throwing resources at, I guess what is being referred to as the homelessness crisis.
“I hate that language, but people are throwing resources like tents at them but not actually coming through with the tents. Or people were promising hotel rooms or putting more and more money into hotel rooms and none of the people who we deal with actually qualify.
“So where do these people go where they can actually follow the protocol for COVID and shelter in place safely, and social distance safely, and have access to clean water to do all the handwashing they need to do, and have access to masks, and actually have access to food and warm clothes?
“The tenants here have a safe place to keep their stuff while they are out during the day. They actually have access to food and showers on a consistent basis. That is what I want people to know, is that this is in fact a place that covers most of the needs of the unhoused people in the city. Obviously, we can barely afford our own houses, so we can’t afford to buy them houses, but beyond housing in permanent shelters, this comes pretty close to providing all of the other needs, and that’s really important to know.”
Tamara describes her experience at MLK Park: “Right now, safety is first, and thanks to you guys I got to eat today and now I feel a lot safer and can have a little more stability. I feel like right here, it was a relief. I feel like it was a relief off my back, my mental, my heart, and the stress that I was under, and my family that I probably caused [to be stressed] because my mom wants to keep tabs on me all the time.
“I didn’t know where I was going to sleep tonight. Last night I slept behind some plants and I just kept hearing all kinds of disturbances. This place is a blessing in disguise, a blessing from the sky. I’m so glad I wasn’t turned away.
“I’m grateful that it’s clean, and there is someone here volunteering. It restores my faith in humanity, because I was hanging by a string. I’m not from this country and that makes me feel vulnerable. I’m just looking for a safe space to fall asleep, where I can actually fall to sleep, and I don’t have to be hyper aware. And you guys are right in front of a clinic! I’m about to go there right now. Thank you, San Francisco!
Darnice says she would gladly take a hotel room or RV. “Get us out of here,” she says. “You done helped everybody else. The park is better. The park is comfortable and quiet, and we don’t have no drama or nothing. It’s peaceful. It’s just that I can’t take the heat, and I’m going through menopause. This community right here, we’re great. I feel real safe.”
“We’re not dirty people,” says Beth. “We don’t have germs. I really hate – and I try not to use the word hate; it’s a very strong word – but I really, really hate it when people see me like I’m a germ.
“The park is perfect. We don’t argue; we don’t fight. There’s no trouble down here; we basically get along. This is the first time this has made it this far. I didn’t think it would stay this long. The number of people, to be this huge it turned out to be better than I thought. This is our community. There’s no stealing. It’s just us getting along.”
“I’m Tina and I’m out here ‘cause my grandma died. I’m trying to get myself up, but it’s hard, I keep hitting a rock. I’m using drugs but I slowed down a lot.
“I’ve been homeless off and on for about 13 years. I’m back in my son’s life now, and now that I’m here, he knows where I am. I’m looking for a job and an out-patient program. A job would keep me busy.
“I hope my story will help somebody else. I feel good ‘cause they watch you here. They help you with food, and with the tents. I feel more safer here than if I was sleeping out on the streets.”
At MLK Park, the community has been donating a steady stream of homemade masks, sanitizer, gloves, hygiene kits, blankets, diapers, batteries, dog food, kids’ toys, a cane for an elder tenant, homemade hand-washing stations, food, water, shower shoes, toilet paper, and soon to be shower trailers! Locals are dropping off donations daily.
The community is turning out every day.
Hunters Point natives Tony Mayfield, Jerome Collins and Fred with their conga drums bring healing vibes through music for the park residents almost every day.
“I came here a few days ago, and I seen the camp out here, and I wasn’t aware of it. So my way of giving back is to come here and bring lunches for all the people. They need all the help they can get, so we give them all the soothing music, make them feel a little better, let them know they’re not all alone. This is the thing to do. I’m from Hunters Point, born here. This is my way of giving back,” explained Tony Mayfield.
Medical Director Keith Seidel at Southeast Health Clinic, located across Keith Street behind the park, has been in communication and has made himself available for any needs for access to medical care for the park’s residents.
Starting the first week of May, Michael Bennett, special program coordinator for Bayview Senior Services at
Rosa Parks Senior Center, across the street from the park, along with Executive Director Cathy Davis of George Davis Senior Center, has organized socially distanced therapeutic exercise activities for tenants.
Marking the MLK Park Shelter-in-Place two-week anniversary, Michael Bennett led a socially distanced “Wellness Walk” around the perimeter of the park.
The “Chronic Homeless Initiative” team at Tipping Point is working closely with Beds 4 Bayview to develop a pop up site program to expedite stimulus checks to the unhoused Bayview Hunters Point community, starting with the residents at MLK Park. With a first practice run last Monday, within three and a half hours, the pilot pop up reached 15 people, with a success rate of 11 applicants approved and four follow ups.
By including the community in decision making and execution, Tipping Point hit the ground running with the suggestion by local Bayview resident Sabrina Hall of Bayview Hunters Point Mothers & Fathers and Southeast Community Council to implement immediate pop up sites. About the park, she adds: “I’m really happy about the community coming out and helping our people in the park, but there’s no need for them to be there. I wish London Breed would open up and let them in hotels, get them housing, let them in RVs, whatever it takes to get people to a safe spot they can shelter in place.”
St. Francis Homelessness Challenge will be providing the park with portable showers. They arrived today! SFHC in collaboration with United Council of Human Services (Mother Brown’s) and Beds 4 Bayview Coalition will be training up to 10 shower stewards this week. Stewards will be local resident volunteers and tenants of MLK Park.
DPW workers at MLK Park have been consistently picking up garbage bags ready for pick up on Keith Street daily.
Coming next for United Council of Human Services (Mother Brown’s) is a collaboration with the Department of Housing and Homelessness to implement another interim stop-gap to housing during the pandemic: a 120 RV trailer lot installed at Pier 94 in San Francisco.
“. . . IT’S EVERYBODY. It’s everybody coming together who gives a damn about Bayview.”
Prioritizing with the folks who were sleeping in chairs at Mother Brown’s, the folks denied service due to social distancing within the facility, and the tenants sleeping in tents at MLK Park, these RVs are a welcoming alternative to the streets. RV tenants will have freedom to come and go for essential services, full case management services provided by UCHS, on site security access, vehicle parking, service animals, medical services, meal delivery and a full laundry facility on site.
Ms. Westbrook explains how the park is a vital link in providing resources that lead to housing: “I think we need to stay in the park. My plan is, move the people from the park into RVs, move more people back down to the park and as the housing crisis lessens some, take those people and move them into housing, and then move the people in the park into those vacant RVs.”
Shout out to the San Francisco collaborative community efforts between leaders and advocates doing the work: Glide, Harm Reduction Therapy, Salvation Army, Coalition on Homelessness, District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton’s office, Veronica Shepard with SFDPH, Bayview Department of Public Works employees, Phelicia Jones, Dr. Davis, Tony Mayfield, Bayview Hunters Point Advocates, Southeast Community Council, Rev. Michael Williams, Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, Global Movement, Democratic Socialists of America SF, Beds 4 Bayview Coalition, Shawn Richard of Brothers Against Guns, Sabrina Hall of Bayview Hunters Point Mothers & Fathers, Tipping Point Community, Southeast Medical Clinic, VIP Security Services and last but most definitely not least the staff at Mother Brown’s (UCHS).
“I think we’re doing an excellent job for us. It’s not just me; it’s all of us. It’s a whole community effort. We got our smart heads together, came up with a solution, and executed it. If it was me by myself, I couldn’t do it. IT’S EVERYBODY. It’s everybody coming together who gives a damn about Bayview,” declared Gwendolyn Westbrook.
Donations thus far have been graciously received and a large portion has gone to the first week’s security graveyard shift. Although this cost was high, it allowed the tenants in the park a safe trip to well-lit restrooms during the night. Not only did this increase the level of safety for the tenants, but it carried the occupancy of the park through a crucial, insecure first week.
The staff and CEO Jimmy Walton at VIP Services were friendly, local and culturally competent. They treated the tenants with dignity and respect, and a friendly presence. Although the cost was high, it was worth the valuable service, and we were all happy to employ locals at a time of severe job loss.
Maria Victoria Ahearne-Rosales and the Beds 4 Bayview Coalition can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.