How coronavirus is changing the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis: UCSF expert Dr. Margot Kushel weighs in

The coronavirus pandemic is upending the Bay Area’s fight against homelessness — changing everything from who we think of as homeless, to how we shelter them, to how much money we can pour into the problem.

Many of the changes — good and bad — will outlast the pandemic, says Dr. Margot Kushel, who studies the intersection of homelessness and health. The good news includes a likely shift away from crowding people into group shelters, and a growing empathy toward the people economic hardship has pushed onto the street.

But the bad news is concerning: The health of those who remain outside is worsening, and that could have ripple effects throughout the health care system for years.

Kushel, a UCSF professor of medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, and the director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, spoke with this news organization about the ways coronavirus has changed the fight against homelessness, and what comes next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way the Bay Area views the homelessness crisis?

A: I think coronavirus has really in some ways brought to the fore how significant the crisis is for the health of the people who experience it. I think it’s made it really painfully obvious. Because of the need to de-intensify shelters, or really have many fewer people in shelters than the few we already did, it really increased the visibility of homelessness.

And then I think the success for the people who are lucky enough to be enrolled in Project Roomkey and associated things — we moved about 5,000 people in the greater Bay Area pretty quickly into hotels and trailers — really in some ways gives us a sense of possibility, of what things could look like if we actually had the resources to do it.