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Faced with El Niño Deluge, Some Homeless Could End Up in Tents at Piers

They’re really fancy tents, though. Really fancy.


Back in October, as the city was gearing up for El Niño, a Human Services Agency staffer was hunting for places to shelter homeless people from the rain. Despite the whole inclement-weather angle of the mission, outdoor spaces were potentially kosher, too. “If you know of any vacant space with in your districts that could work, please let me know,” read an email that went out to community benefit district offices. “We are also looking for space outside to set up heavy duty tents to shelter folks as well.” Wait, what? Isn’t the point of an El Niño response to get homeless people out of tents? 

In the end, says Sam Dodge, director of the mayor’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement office, the Human Services Agency found enough indoor spaces that could convert to temporary shelters during a storm. Well—technically indoors. Two of those spaces are actually Piers 29 and 80, which aren’t quite insulated or, well, indoorsy enough to make efficient shelters. Which is why the Human Services Agency has erected a big, 150-person tent inside Pier 80, with one more presumably earmearked for Pier 29. “We are erecting a tent because it is more efficient to heat and to account for possible leaks in the pier shed building,” a Human Services spokesperson emailed, noting that the piers have ADA-accessible bathrooms.

The provisional El Niño shelters provide additional space beyond the city’s baseline winter shelter stock of 1,537 beds. But they’ll only be open during rainstorms.

Dodge says the tents are quite robust. “They’re really big—bigger than for a wedding,” he says. “They have hard metal sides, a canvas top, and wood floors. They look like longhouses.” Festive!

The tents account for only about 200, maybe 300, beds (well, mats, really) of the roughly 1,300 that the agency could set up.

Unlike many of San Francisco’s permanent shelters, the El Niño shelters sound a bit more flexible, even if they are only open during significant rain. They will be available 24 hours a day, according to the Human Services Agency. “People can bring their pets and belongings too,” says Department of Emergency Management spokesperson Francis Zamora. 


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