First Responders for San Francisco’s Most Vulnerable: Homeless Shelter Workers are the Unsung Heroes on the Front Lines of COVID-19

SAN FRANCISCO--()--On Saturday of Easter weekend, one of the homeless guests at the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center went into labor and was transported to a San Francisco hospital to give birth to her new baby. The next day, a long-time couple stepped out in the courtyard between the two gray bunker dormitories at the waterfront center to say: “I do now.” They tied the knot to the cheers of a handful of (socially distanced) guests. In the two weeks that have followed, the staff at Bayshore Navigation center and at the city’s temporary hotel quarters for the homeless have raced to the rescue of two different guests who were overdosing outside on the street. Administering CPR and Narcan, they reversed the overdoses, giving both patients more time for paramedics to get them to the hospital. They saved their lives.

At a time when a terrorist called COVID-19 has stopped the world in its tracks, the staff at The Embarcadero and Bayshore Navigation centers and other SF CBO city partners, are answering the call to care for the community of unsheltered homeless. The silver lining: the glimpses of light that shine through in moments big and small — a new life in the birth of a baby, love in a time of coronavirus, and the saving of two lives.

“They are the unsung heroes of the pandemic,” said Steve Good, Executive Director of Five Keys Schools and Programs, which has been tapped by city leaders to became a homeless shelter first responders’ SWAT team to work alongside San Francisco’s public health supervisors and homeless advocates to dramatically reduce density in crowded shelters.

“Our navigation team and our fellow CBOs are not just staffing these emergency shelters, they are literally saving lives,” said Good.

Good called Five Keys navigation center employees and others manning the homeless shelters in San Francisco, “the unsung heroes of the pandemic.”

In the best of times, providing food, shelter, and safety to San Francisco’s homeless population is a challenge. But as the COVID-19 outbreak continues, efforts have become more extreme.

But through San Francisco’s safety efforts, more than 900 homeless people have been moved into hotel rooms and a pop-up shelter at Moscone West, as the city struggles to keep the pandemic from racing through its 8,000-strong unhoused population.

Specifically, Five Keys was named by San Francisco city leaders to supervise operations at Site10, a 450-room hotel in the city’s center that is housing 360 guests that were formerly in shelters but are most vulnerable to COVID-19 because of age or preexisting medical conditions.

“Unlike many of us, our residents experiencing homelessness cannot simply close their doors to this disease, and that’s why San Francisco has ramped up efforts to de-escalate transmission of this disease within shelters, and ultimately save lives,” said Good. Five Keys runs the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center and the Bayshore Navigation Center. “Though no one is immune to COVID-19, this pandemic has all too clearly revealed the voids in our society and serves as a wake-up call on the life-and-death urgency of taking care of the most vulnerable in our population.”

Like nurses and doctors, the individuals on the front lines of San Francisco’s homeless centers and now the hotel shelters, are risking their lives, said Good. He says from the start, the can-do attitude among Five Keys employees has been: "Whatever it takes. Sign me up."

Since 2003, Five Keys has been committed to getting the lives of people on the margins of society back on track — behind the walls of 20 county jails, in economically isolated communities, at two navigation centers for the unsheltered homeless, and more than 100 sites throughout San Francisco and southern California.

Five Keys’ navigation center directors like Meg O’Neill, who has been deployed to head operations at Site 10 hotel and almost 200 other Five Key employees who directly serve the homeless are true COVID-19 first responders. At the hotel and the navigation centers, they supervise teams that not only feed, shelter and provide education for guests, but respond to fights, seizures, overdoses, and episodes tied to addiction and mental illness. They de-escalate each situation and stabilize people until medical personnel arrives when necessary.

They are literally saving lives. Already twice the staff at the centers have raced to rescue guests who are overdosing outside on the street. Administering CPR and Narcan, they reversed the overdoses, giving the patients more time for paramedics to get them to the hospital. They saved two lives.

In many ways, the Five Keys’ team’s nimbleness, and ability to race toward the chaos of COVID-19 is because of the staff’s firsthand experiences in confronting trauma and the resilience and grit they have gained in their personal lives, said Good.

“Many of our staff in our navigation centers have spent serious time in prison and bring a very unique calm and ability to get through during a time of crisis like this,” said Good. “At the same time, they are putting their own lives at great risk. But they do it, because they have a tremendous passion and determination to give back and serve.”

About Five Keys Schools & Programs

Dedicated to getting people’s lives back on track, Five Keys Schools and Programs and its more than 550 dedicated employees serve more than 25,000 individuals each year throughout the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and nine counties through the state of California. Five Keys was founded in 2003 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department as the first accredited charter high school in the nation to provide diploma programs for adults in county jails. Today its efforts have grown exponentially. The organization interrupts the cycles of homelessness, substance abuse, violence, literacy and incarnation through our 80 community learning centers, transitional housing shelters, career centers, and community-based workforce networks by investing in their humanity so that they can be self-determined to change their lives. Five Keys also hires people directly into our transitional employment positions for formerly incarcerated individuals and people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. TAX ID: 81-0622701


Mary Beth Sammons


Mary Beth Sammons