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This Black Life Has to Matter

By Chris Block, CHI Director

Recently, at the end of a long walk with my dog Charlie, I met L, who was lying in the middle of the sidewalk near 24th and Mission. She seemed to be in very bad shape, so I approached her and asked how she was doing, repeating my question until she became conscious and was able to tell me that she was ok, but she was hungry. I offered to go and get her some lunch at McDonalds, and she gave me her order – two cheeseburgers and French fries.

I live nearby, so I dropped off Charlie, stopped by McDonalds, and about thirty minutes later returned with her lunch and started calling people who I knew could help. During the time that I was away, I am certain that many San Franciscans must have walked right past Lorraine as she lay almost unconscious in the middle of the sidewalk. How many of those people sincerely believe that Black Lives Matter, and yet passed by this Black woman, unable, unwilling, or too desensitized to the sight of people suffering on our streets to help?

After inquiring with colleagues at the City, I learned that L is on what is known as the Housing Referral list, a list of people who are prioritized for housing in San Francisco because they have been unhoused for years (and sometimes decades) and usually have some form of disability or chronic condition. As a result of her priority status, we managed to get her a hotel room.

A group of tents that shelter our neighbors experiencing homelessness, which I passed on my walk with Charlie before meeting L.

Creating the Housing Referral list was an important step forward for the City’s homelessness response system, and the fact that L was on the list proves that we can effectively identify the most vulnerable people to prioritize for housing and services. Full disclosure: I helped create Adult Coordinated Entry, which generates the Housing Referral List, during my tenure at Episcopal Community Services. But, the current conditions on our streets indicate that all too often our system is failing unhoused residents like L. The people who walked by L as she lay on the sidewalk also failed her.

The truth is that we have all failed to demand better health and housing for thousands of our neighbors.  A person sleeping outside – on the sidewalk, in a park, under a tent or an overpass – should be so outside the norm that anyone who witnesses a person in that state feels an urgency to secure them a safe place to stay – indoors – and has access to the resources to make that happen. Instead, for too long, we have allowed homelessness to become “normal” in San Francisco.

That is not to say that we do not make progress. From Jan 1-April 30 of this year, the City helped 450 people exit homelessness to permanent homes amidst a global pandemic. It is a great triumph and a result of tremendous effort every time a person experiencing homelessness secures housing. Dedicated people work constantly to make this possible – some of those same people who took my calls and figured out a way to secure a hotel room for L. But they are operating in a system and in a context that does not value the lives of poor, Black, and unhoused San Franciscans enough to translate their efforts into a true end to homelessness.

Our cries of Black Lives Matter ring hollow for L and many others. To prove that L’s life really matters, we must expand the solution space until we have housing in San Francisco for her, and for every Black person living on our streets.

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