All of us are under a shelter-in-place order, but we aren’t living the same experience. Access to resources makes it easier. Scarcity brings hardship. On Treasure Island, one resident is scrambling to make sure her community’s basic needs are met.
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San Francisco’s Treasure Island, longtime resident Hope Williams says, is “pretty much a one-way in, one-way out kinda place.” There’s just one bus. One market. No gas stations. And no traditional public school.
Though it’s only about three-and-a-half miles from the mainland, it can feel like a world apart. Residents are used to having to remind San Francisco that they’re even here. The novel coronavirus crisis — schools closed, everyone told to stay inside — is no exception. And Williams knew the stakes were high.
“The minute that they started talking about a possible school closure, that’s when I started texting and e-mail. Every name, everybody I could think of,” she said. “I was starting to see residents rush the corner store. I mean it was just basic common sense. If we only have one store and there’s close to 2,000 people, we’re gonna need food.”
Every place has a story and Treasure Island’s is about impermanence.
It was created from landfill for the Golden Gate International Expo in 1939. Then, all that beauty and splendor was demolished to create a Naval base. Ships contaminated by World War II nuclear weapons testing got scrubbed down here, leaving radioactive waste behind.
Then in 1997, San Francisco got the island back and repurposed old military quarters for low-income housing. Williams has lived here for 11 years and stepped up her advocacy about five years ago.
The Boys and Girls Club had just pulled up stakes — because of that legacy of contamination. SFUSD’s traditional public school on the island was long gone, shuttering in 2005. Rolling blackouts were common — and remain frequent today. But what really kicked Williams into gear, she said, was “when they started talking about the redevelopment.”
That’s the city’s plan to tear everything down and start over — again.
It calls for 8,000 homes, high-rise hotels, retail. Market-rate units are expected to help support the creation of affordable housing and, in theory, existing residents will be allowed to stay. Still, many are worried they’ll get pushed out. So Williams made a commitment.
“I have not allowed anyone to oversee this island without talking to them,” she said, “and for them to know who we are.”
Fast forward to the second week of March, when life in the time of coronavirus brought a looming SFUSD school closure. Williams knew that nearly 300 kids who get bussed off the island to about half a dozen district schools would lose their access to the meals they rely on five days a week.
“It really took me bulldogging,” she said, “just locking on and just like, ‘No. I’m not gonna let go until you do something.’”
Williams has two girls, ages five and 17, and works for the school district as a family liaison — teaching other parents how to advocate for their kids’ education. She’s active with the district’s African American Parent Advisory Council, or AAPAC, which trains parents to do the same. And AAPAC program manager Laticia Erving got on the phone to help Williams make a bunch of key connections. Still, this was hard.
“I cried a couple of times, in just the emails back and forth,” she said, “because you get pushed out.”
But, on Friday, March 20, the week schools closed, Williams stood in front of the Ship Shape Community Center on the island, and with a team she helped bring together, handed out 170 bags of pre-made meals for the kids of SFUSD families. Enough to last for three days.
“We gave full bags out,” she said, including breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. “It made my heart delight.”
This will go on every Tuesday and Friday morning while schools are closed, through at least May 1 — and likely through the remainder of the school year. Williams is the site coordinator. And, the weekly food bank at the community center has agreed to boost its portions for all island households in need.
So how did she get there? Those frantic calls and emails paid off. Her first go-to was San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney. He represents District 6, which includes some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, in the Tenderloin, South of Market and Treasure Island.
Treasure Island, he said in a phone interview, is “a place that is in transition. It has many families, many seniors, a large African American population, a lot of folks who are coming out of rehab in sort of transitional or supportive housing.”
Though it’s one of the most affordable neighborhoods in the city, it is also isolated, “underserved, and experiences significant challenges in accessing services that most of the rest of San Francisco takes for granted,” he said.
When SFUSD released its first map of school sites where staff would be handing out ‘grab and go’ meals for kids, Treasure Island wasn’t on it. Immediately, he heard from Williams. And with his legislative aide, Courtney McDonald, doing a lot of the legwork, his office jumped in to help.
“It took us about three days to make it happen,” he said. “We needed volunteers, we needed outreach, we needed logistics, we needed delivery, we needed funding.”
The biggest hitch. There was no SFUSD school site on the island, and the district initially didn’t think it was possible to get around that. That’s where Williams’ other big ally in this fight came in: SFUSD Board of Education Commissioner Gabriela Lopez.
Lopez, just like Haney, said Treasure Island’s problems were on her radar, in a theoretical kind of way. But, she needed to hear from Williams about the facts on the ground, so they could come up with a plan together — and fast.
“There are 291 SFUSD students on the island that are now not being provided daily meals,” Lopez said she recognized. “That is where the urgency was.”
With help from ONE Treasure Island, which provides services to island residents, Lopez and Williams secured a site — the Ship Shape Community Center.
But because it isn’t a school, SFUSD can’t get federal reimbursement for the meals. Haney’s office found a donor for Day One, and the district then stepped in with other private contributions it has raised specifically to feed families during this crisis. District nutritional services staff hauled in the food. And the volunteer crew opened for business.
Williams said she and other volunteers were spreading the word on the island through the NextDoor app. But she knew plenty of families aren’t accessing that technology. So she hopped in her car.
“I drove around and I started knocking on doors, encouraging people to come out and to bring their neighbors with them, like if people knew that somebody had kids,” she said.
Meanwhile, as some parents confided that they were not comfortable leaving the house, volunteers began making home deliveries.
Williams is exhausted. But her work isn’t done. In fact, it’s underscoring what’s been broken all along. Without a school here, SFUSD students go without subsidized meals during summer and winter breaks. This crisis, Williams said, is “forcing conversation.”
Commissioner Lopez agrees.
“These are things that we’ve cared about changing,” she said. “And now we have the urgency and almost like the humanity in us where we can’t ignore it.”
Meanwhile, Williams has already found volunteers to start delivering meals to homebound seniors.