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Stuart Phillips

“Can I have another one?” The middle-aged lady scuffs up in her sparkly flip flops for her second box lunch. She ends up with four every day; I worry what they’ll find when they clean her room. Still, I smile at her under my mask and go ahead and hand over a stack of lunches in brown paper bags.

Three hots and a cot. That’s essentially what we promised the homeless population of San Francisco to get them off the streets during the pandemic. And it worked.

Public Health Officials decided that our homeless were at particular risk, so we poured them into hotels throughout the downtown. The plan was to take a population that couldn’t fight the surge of the virus, test them, house them, then try to transition them to something more stable. We removed thousands from the path of COVID 19. We also managed to keep dozens of hotels afloat.

Activation as a Disaster Service Worker came with my City job. My January DSW vision involved me pulling someone from the rubble of an earthquake, or (more realistically) filling out paperwork while a pall of wildfire smoke rolled over the Bay Bridge. My April vision involved wearing nitrile gloves and an N95 mask to protect my family from my job.

My primary assignment was “Site Monitor,” a bureaucratic title that translated to handing out meals in one of the thirty-odd “transition sites.” Our residents were homeless people who were either waiting on COVID test results or who had come back negative and were queued up for social services.

Very few contracted the virus—we immediately sent those to Zuckerberg General and HAZMAT would deep clean their old room. The sight of the white suits and double-bagged linens reinforced our routine: drop a bagged meal at the door, knock, and scurry away before they opened.

We didn’t know everyone’s status, so every shift at the hotel started with a warning.

“Keep contact to a minimum. Wear your PPE. Protect yourself.” Even without the briefings, my eighty-year-old mother lives with us, so I was not taking any chances. Gloves. Mask. Face Shield. Shower as soon as I got home; clothes straight into the wash.

But there was downside to the PPE—the distancing. Not six feet of social distancing, but simple human distancing. It’s hard to see someone as a person when you have to treat them as a vector. This is especially true when it’s a vulnerable population like the homeless, the people you train yourself to see through as you walk down Market or Mission, ignoring their cardboard pleas and stained sleeping bags.

After handing out lunch, I sit in the lobby of my assigned floor, swiveling my chair to look down the long stretch of hallway. Residents wander up and ask for an extra juice, clean sheets, or a visit from their case worker. These interactions help me see the people behind the room number.

425—the lady with the wee dachshund who collects oatmeal packets, saving them up to give baths to “Sweetie.” 433—the scrawny youngster from Louisiana who calls everyone “Sir” and “Ma’am” and tells us about humid summers growing up in Baton Rouge. And, of course, Box Lady. 417—who always asks for her extra meals in a gentle Guatemalan accent.

She stuffs the boxes into her bag, mumbles something I don’t catch, and makes for the elevator. I take a break and decide to walk the long block to Starbucks. They were still doing mobile orders and handing you coffee outside the door.

On the way back, I weave through piles of trash and people in front of the hotel. An overturned shopping cart lies in the middle of a line of grimy tents pushed hard against the building. Two pigeons are tearing at inexplicable bits of cucumber on the sidewalk. A couple of used needles. A random sock. And Box Lady.

She is going from tent to tent. She carefully calls to the occupants, then pulls a box from her blue IKEA bag. A hand reaches from a tent flap and takes a lunch. She presses a sack on a man sitting on a pile of clothes. I nod as I walk past with my mocha, compelled to acknowledge her act of grace.

“Con dios,” I mutter. She smiles back.

“Con dios.”

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