The Earthquake That Forced San Francisco Forward: 25 Years After Loma Prieta

Twenty-five-years ago, Lombard Street was quiet. No feet walked atop its red bricks and no bicycles rode down its curved path. A cable car, immobilized by a 7.1 moment magnitude earthquake that had knocked out power to the City and shut down the cable pulley system, blocked traffic flow on the most crooked street in the world. On this day twenty-five-years ago, the Loma Prieta earthquake ruptured a 30-mile segment along the San Andreas Fault, shaking the Bay Area’s silty clay soil for 15 seconds, knocking down buildings, splitting open streets, and leaving 12,000 people homeless.

Paul Boden, Organizing Director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, said things were chaotic, but that the City came together to support each other.

“I was working for Hospitality House the first day that the quake hit,” Mr. Boden said. “The building I was in had to be destroyed later because of the damage done. Actually, almost all of the homeless shelters I worked with had to empty out because they were in bad shape.”

Such widespread displacement of residents prompted the need for national support from the American Red Cross and FEMA. Both organizations came to the City and set up supportive shelter programs. For property owners, 18 months of rental assistance was provided and, for renters with long-term lease agreements, two months were provided.

Unfortunately, homeless and low-income residents of the City did not qualify for rental assistance programs. In order to receive rental assistance, a person had to own property or be in a lease agreement with a length greater than 30 days. But homeless shelters and temporary housing in San Francisco only offered 28-day stays to residents, two days short of the required minimum length in order to receive assistance. Therefore, because homeless and low-income did not meet the eligibility requirements for rental assistance, and because homeless and low-income housing had been deemed unsafe to return to, most were forced to sleep back on the streets.

“The class issues started to rise,” said Mr. Boden. “First day after the earthquake, everyone was in the same boat. After that, homeless and low-income people couldn’t get (anything).” A distinct symbol of this struggle, Mr. Boden described, was a Navy aircraft carrier that came into the San Francisco Bay in order to provide shelter for the City’s homeless residents who had been turned away. “I remember it (the aircraft carrier) well. It was a symbol of our serious class issues.”

A New Proposal

At the time of the earthquake, Mr. Boden was on the board of the Coalition on Homelessness. He, along with fellow members Joe Wilson, Greg Francis, and Laura Wore, had written a research proposal emphasizing the need for the City of San Francisco to begin construction of permanent supportive-housing for homeless people, rather than just temporary shelters.

Such a proposal for housing homeless was seen as radical and unwarranted. But when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and many of the temporary homeless shelters were deemed unsafe for occupancy, San Francisco Mayor, Art Agnos, decided to take another look at Mr. Boden’s proposal. From this new perspective, Mayor Agnos decided the proposal warranted funding, and so he allocated approximately $2.2 million from the earthquake’s relief fund to Mr. Boden’s proposal.

One year later, in 1990, Mr. Boden and his peers opened the Community Housing Partnership. The Community Housing Partnership offers homeless people safe housing, job training, employment services and community services activities. The Partnership started with the idea that many homeless people suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to their chronic homelessness, and that this cycle wouldn’t be broken unless they have a longer-term, supportive community to live in. Since the Partnership’s inception, over 1,000 housing units have been provided and over 2,200 homeless people have been able to benefit.

It Took An Earthquake

Twenty-five-years-ago, Lombard Street was quiet. Everywhere the ground was vibrating; everywhere people’s feet were rocking. The City of San Francisco was going through a major shake up and no one could have seen what would become. From below the red bricks came the realization that more was needed. From what had been a research study paper, stagnant for years, with no chance of approval, came a new model for housing homeless people in San Francisco. Twenty-fives-years later, the lesson still resonates.