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Living Homeless, and Cold, in San Francisco

| December 13, 2013
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We always qualify our complaints about the cold in the Bay Area: Oh, it’s cold — but this is nothing compared to (name of hometown here). It’s true that the closer you live to the water here, the less insulation your home will have and the weaker the heating will be, and it’s occasionally uncomfortable on those few nights every year the temperature dips into the 30s. That just comes with the territory.

But for one group of Bay Area residents, the cold weather is brutal and occasionally deadly. Those who live without reliable shelter face a night-to-night struggle to find some way, any way, to stay warm. For many, that means a pile of blankets, lots of layers of clothing and a piece of cardboard between them and the concrete they lie on. Two of our staffers, reporter Alex Emslie and photographer Sara Bloomberg, visited with unsheltered San Franciscans earlier this week to hear how they were contending with the elements. Here are the pictures and voices they brought back:

Qat Astrophic says she feels safer sleeping in her tent on the sidewalk than staying in a shelter. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Qat Astrophic: We met Qat Astrophic, 37, on 17th Street. She says she’s been in San Francisco for five years and homeless off and on for 20 years. She says her tent helps in the cold: “If you light a couple candles, it’s like a heater. Like I can light a candle and it’ll warm up the whole tent. Not to mention if you got a couple sleeping bags, one inside the other, I was homeless in the snow in Portland, and put one sleeping bag inside of the other one, and managed to stay warm sleeping outside in the snow.”

Michael Smith battles the freezing temperatures that have hit San Francisco with layers of sweaters and blankets.  (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Michael Smith: Michael Smith is 56, has been in San Francisco for 20 years and living on the streets around the Civic Center for four months. He wound up at San Francisco General Hospital during the cold snap: “I had been laying on a blanket for about maybe four or five hours. It was about 3:45 in the morning when I finally just got up and I walked down to Carl’s Jr. Luckily I was able to go inside. It was unbelievable. It was really, it was painful.”

Fred Kelly Law says he tries to  “curl up and try to get as warm as I can.” (Sara Bloomberg)

Fred Kelly Law: We caught up with Fred Kelly Law in the Civic Center area. He’s 61 and has been in San Francisco “for years.” His tactic for staying warm on recent cold nights: “Curl up and try to get as warm as I can.”

Nyla Bonner, 2, enjoys a free meal with her mother Chelan Cassidy at U.N. Plaza in San Francisco. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Chelan Cassidy: Chelan Cassidy told us she’s not homeless, but was in a soup line near the Civic Center to get a meal for her and her two-year-old daughter, Nyla. “I feel it’s like one hot meal a day for you know, it helps people sleep at night, and just to give you something warm in your stomach.”

Denise Lewis now lives in an SRO on 6th St. But frequently, her heater doesn't work: "I have another coat I put on, but it’s still cold." (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Denise Lewis: Denise Lewis is 57 and stays at the Bayanihan House SRO on 6th Street, just south of Market. She’s lived in San Francisco her whole life. She was homeless for 10 years, went into the hospital and care homes about five years ago. She’s been at Bayanihan about a year and says it’s cold there, too. “I’ve been getting my heater fixed. It comes on it goes off it comes on and goes off, so I turn the stove on. … I have another coat I put on, but it’s still cold.”

Mauricio Solies lives on the street and faces the freezing temperatures at night: "We need blankets. That's the most important thing. And love."   (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Mauricio Solies – Maurico Solies is 56, and we met him near St. Anthony’s, in the Tenderloin. He’s been in San Francisco since 1975 and has been living on the streets for about a year. He lost his place in a shelter. “I have to get it back … because the rain is coming. It’s going to pour. I’m going to ask for the shelter again. I was there for four months. It beautiful. You have to do the same thing, respect, respect, don’t fight, and that’s it. Don’t fight with nobody.”

Charles Thomas works at Saint Boniface Church on Golden Gate Avenue. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Charles Thomas: Works with Project Gubbio at St. Boniface Church, near the Civic Center. He’s been in San Francisco since 1992 and spent years on the street before going to work for agencies helping the homeless and poor. Here’s what he says about Project Gubbio: “Well it’s a sanctuary for somebody who’s been up all night or just tired throughout the day, a safe place to come rest your head.”

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Category: Housing

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  • azdk

    And the point of this article is what? To show that people get cold when they sleep outside….in the cold?

    • NorCalMalaise

      Whoever you are, I hope you get the gift of empathy for Christmas.

  • C.C.B.

    I wish this article ended with some suggestions for how those of us who are more fortunate could help the homeless at this time of year. Coat drives? Which are the best places to donate?

    • PeninsulaFamilyService

      Shelter Network provides emergency and transitional housing http://www.ivsn.org/

    • km2012

      Here is a suggestion, from a friend who was asking the same thing as you:

      I know there is a lot of frustration about homelessness – and homeless people are frustrated too! We decided to do something about it and made HandUp so people could donate directly to homeless people they want to help. Please check out some of the members on our site and hear their stories: http://handup.us

      Also, the Episcopal Community Services in SF shelter more homeless people than any other organization and they have volunteer opportunities as well. http://www.ecs-sf.org/aboutus.html

    • Raven Lee Meadows

      Best place to do your coat drive. Im gonna tell you. Drive UP to a bunch of homeless folks, and roll down your window. Ask them if they would like a coat. They will look shocked, then say yes. Be prepared to keep the order. They will follow instructions. Dont let them over take your car. Ask them to line up, and quickly, size up ea body, and give them a coat. Their are times when people drive up, with prepared foods, and give away fulll meals. Its the best thing to see homeless people smile. Giving clothes to ST ANthonies… I saw those bags sit in their old church window for a YEAR!!!! The staff takes the best stuff, then doesnt hand it out. Im sorry, St ANthonies is good for one thing, feeding fantastic meals once a day. That is their strength. They just dont have qualified people with proper temperment to hand out all the wonderful clothes that have been donated. The public should of been told. I am now telling . They have a place on Mission/6th, where little old ladies go in, and stuff 12 bags of free clothes once in a while. THe clothes are free, but, the ladies that come in, are not homeless. I hope that helps. Follow your heart. You will find a worthy group, for instance Market at 3rd. By Jeffreys Toys, a small parkish area, where the elder homeless men play chess. I give them stuff all the time. The stuff I give, they decide who and where it goes. It makes them feel alive, almost like they have a job for the day. Leave it up to them. They are fair. ..<3…

  • Bob Glashan

    The Rent its to damn high. Help people willing to help themselves, rather than waste your time on people who have no motivation or desire to better them self’s or San Francisco. Hypodermic needles, human shit and untamed dogs are the only thing Bums bring to SF. Get real its San Francisco 40*F isn’t that cold you will live.

    • Brian Keathley

      Damn dude. I’m pretty right wing but you make me look like Mother Theresa! They’re still your fellow human beings and a lot of them are women, kids and vets. Did you not see the two year old girl in the pics? You gonna tell her it’s “not that cold, you’ll live” when she curls up on that cardboard in 35 degree temps? I’m sending you Preparation H for Christmas. Surely you have Hemorrhoids from ridding that high horse so much.

    • Raven Lee Meadows

      Very true my friend. There are areas I walk thru daily, and yes, the humans are so far gone, they have given up. Walking thru their area’s is like walking thru a toilet. They have to work so hard to get the basics. They are exhausted. There are more and more dogs, i suspect for protection. Alot of them are on the new housing list being buildt by Mercy Housing, there by St Anthonies. People who want to step up, and off the sidewalk, get an apartment ,will follow the procedures. There are however, a handful who have lived on streets their entire lives, and dont wish to change. Just ask them. They see no reason to live ‘indoors’. Its a reality. Its no ones fault. Not ours, not theirs. It just ‘is’. What can we say to that …except… alrighty then. And wish them the best.