Coronavirus Impact: SF resident feels like prisoner in own home as homeless tents triple

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The number of homeless people in tents is soaring during the coronavirus pandemic, and that's putting intense pressure on some San Francisco residents. One family could not get help from public officials, so they turned to the ABC7 I-Team.

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Block after block, tents with homeless are spreading across San Francisco's Tenderloin and into surrounding neighborhoods. Officials tell us they counted 400 tents before the coronavirus pandemic. Now it's past 1,100, and that's affecting those who live in nearby apartments.

Dan Noyes: "Is it a stretch to say that you feel like a prisoner in your own home?"
Lisa Russell: "Absolutely, absolutely, I feel 100% like a prisoner."

Lisa Russell lives with her husband, son and father in a Lower Polk building that backs onto an alley. One large tent sits within arm's reach from their window. A vent leads straight into their apartment. They're worried they could get sick, even though they are sheltering in place.

"We are scared that, by no fault of our own and by following the rules, we're going to end up getting COVID," says Russell. "And that could be deadly for both my father and myself."

Russell has severe asthma and her father, at 73-years-of-age, is in a high-risk group.

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William Russell told the I-Team, "The virus, it's so close that it could easily be brought in, you know. I mean, if you open these windows or with that, you're basically having anybody who's that close inside your room, might as well invite them inside your apartment, you know, because they're that close to it."

The Russells tell us they see drug use daily and witness fights, but it's the threat of fires that keeps them up at night. Twice in recent months, tents caught fire, sending smoke into the building. And just last night, Lisa again smelled smoke. It turned out to be a barbecue grill at the tent below her window. She says her 11-year-old son worries.

"It was so traumatizing that when my son smells smoke or thinks that there's something going on, the last time you heard a fire alarm, he just, it caused a whole lot of panic in him because of that incident."

Lisa Russell says the police haven't been much help and that she and her father have called and emailed several public officials, from the mayor to the district attorney, the fire department, and their supervisor, but never heard back. After Dan Noyes called, Supervisor Aaron Peskin met us at the site.

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"And my heart goes out to the unhoused and my heart goes out to the housed," said Peskin. "And in terms of real solutions, let's be real, our options are not great."

At the very least, Lisa and her father would like the tent under their window to move across the street, in front of a commercial building. But Supervisor Peskin points to CDC guidance issued May 10 against moving homeless encampments because that "increases the potential for infectious disease spread."

Peskin also counted off the distance. The tent is too large to fit on the other, smaller sidewalk. Another option, Peskin says the city has arranged 3,000 hotel rooms for the homeless.

"We want to offer all of these folks housing to get them off of the street to keep them safe from COVID-19 to reduce the impacts on local neighbors and neighborhoods."

But, one woman staying in the tent, Jasmine Mixon, tells us she's frustrated after repeatedly trying to get housing from the city. "I've already inquired about it. I've called 311," said Mixon. "I've looked it up online. I've done all sorts of things. And they just keep saying that it's supposed to start, it's supposed to start, but it has not started."

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Another public official, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, declined an interview, but did finally email Lisa Russell. He told her to call the police if a crime has been committed, and added, "... the city has not adequately invested in affordable and supportive housing for the most marginalized members of our community."

We did see workers cleaning streets in the area, and the city is setting up encampment squares so the homeless can pitch tents at a safe distance. That's not enough for Lisa and her family. She told us, "After 15 years of living in San Francisco, it's, it's where my heart is, I love this place. And it kills me inside to see what is happening because we do not have city officials stepping up and doing their job."

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The woman living in that tent tells the I-Team they would move if Lisa Russell just asked. But Lisa says she is so frightened by what she's seen and experienced, she hasn't been outside in more than two months.

Read the CDC guidelines on encampments here.

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