Unhoused People in Southeast San Francisco to Receive Free COVID-19 Testing

Through ‘United in Health D10 Unhoused,’ UCSF Will Offer Free Tests for Anyone Experiencing Homelessness in District 10

By Laura Kurtzman

Clinician in PPE talks to unhoused man at an outdoor table

Sarah Goglin, MD, interviews Andre James Keys prior to administering antibody and nasal COVID-19 tests at a UCSF event for unhoused residents on June 6. Photo by Maurice Ramirez

In the latest push to ensure that San Franciscans who are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 get tested and treated, UC San Francisco is sponsoring a free testing event for anyone experiencing homelessness in Supervisory District 10, which encompasses a broad swath along the southeastern portion of the city.

The collaboration is part of UCSF’s tightly coordinated work with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH), the state of California and affected communities to respond to the public health crisis presented by COVID-19.

The effort is being led by Margot Kushel, MD, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, in partnership with the United Council of Human Services (Mother Brown’s Kitchen), Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, and Southeast Community Council, as well as SFDPH.

Organizers are hoping to test 1,000 people over two days, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on June 6 and 7 outside near Mother Brown’s, 2111 Jennings St., San Francisco. A veterinarian will also be on site to offer free general animal care for anyone with a pet. And Mother Brown’s Kitchen will provide free barbecue for all participants.

portrait of Margot Kushel

Margot Kushel, MD

“People experiencing homelessness are at high risk of acquiring the infection, and they are also at high risk of becoming seriously ill,” said Kushel, who is professor of medicine at UCSF. “We are working closely with the community-based organizations and SFDPH to be sure that people who are found to have the infection will receive care and support throughout their illness.”

The initiative, called “United in Health D10 Unhoused,” is part of the recently launched UCSF COVID-19 Community Public Health Initiative. Under the leadership of Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, MAS, vice dean for population health and health equity at the UCSF School of Medicine, the initiative focuses on communities and populations disproportionately affected by the virus, and on building durable community partnerships.

With principal investigator Diane Havlir, MD, professor of medicine at UCSF, the initiative recently sponsored a testing program in San Francisco’s Mission District, followed by another effort in the Bayview, Sunnydale and Visitation Valley that was led by Havlir and Kim Rhoads, MD, MPH, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF.

Just like the scientists who led the previous testing efforts, Kushel and her project leaders, including Elizabeth Imbert, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at UCSF, spent many hours planning the testing program with community members to ensure that it meets the needs of unhoused people, who may need extra support to isolate or quarantine if they test positive, including a hotel room, as well as food, water, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. 

“Everyone has approached it in a spirit of community and partnership,” Kushel said. “I really want to call out the incredible strength of the community. They are co-creating the project in a very meaningful way. They have shown up with their spirit and their energy. They’ve not been afraid to tell us when our ideas aren’t good, and they’ve always been willing to show up with better ones.”

Gwendolyn Westbrook portrait

Gwendolyn Westbrook, CEO of United Council of Human Services

One of the mainstays of the effort is Gwendolyn Westbrook, CEO of United Council of Human Services (Mother Brown’s Kitchen), who has been feeding and sheltering homeless people in the Bayview and the Southeast sector for 16 years.

“The services – and what they were offering to us – no one could pass that up, especially when you’re in a community that’s been overlooked for so long on every issue,” she said. “Something like this happens, it makes you want to cry. Somebody finally noticed we need help out here. And we really do.”

As for Mother Brown’s barbecue, Westbrook said, “Our food is made with love. We can’t put a roof over their heads. The least we can do is make sure they’re nice and full with good food.”

Supervisor Shamann Walton, D-10, who represents the Southeast sector, has been a strong supporter of the testing effort, as well.

“We must protect individuals and families experiencing homelessness in D10 from COVID-19,” Walton said. “I’m grateful to UCSF for proactively offering testing for our most vulnerable residents, which will help connect them with treatment, and will help our scientists to better understand the spread of this virus in our community.” 

SFDPH has also been actively engaged to ensure that people who test positive are connected to care.

“This free testing effort will further our city’s overall outreach to people experiencing homelessness in District 10 and connect those who are sick with the medical attention they need,” said Grant Colfax, MD, director of health at SFDPH. “We are grateful to UCSF for their continuous partnership and for making this testing available to serve disadvantaged neighborhoods and populations that are most vulnerable to becoming very sick or dying if they get COVID-19.”

As with the Mission District and Bayview/Sunnydale/Visitacion Valley testing programs, United in Health D10 Unhoused takes advantage of greatly increased capacity for COVID-19 sample analysis now available at a new UCSF diagnostic laboratory adjacent to CZ Biohub at Mission Bay. That lab, built from scratch in just eight days in March, was made possible in partnership with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative under the leadership of Biohub Co-President Joe DeRisi, PhD, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.

In addition to COVID-19 testing, UCSF’s closely coordinated response with the City and County of San Francisco and state of California to the pandemic has included providing forecasting and counseling by UCSF epidemiologists; implementing a statewide contact tracing program in collaboration with the California Department of Health; providing $1 million and clinical expertise for the City to open a COVID-19 unit at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital; and opening a new, 53-bed respiratory isolation unit at UCSF Health’s Mount Zion hospital to expand the city’s overall hospital capacity for potential future surges, while offering dedicated space for current patients.

These proactive efforts build on UCSF’s long-standing commitment to addressing public health crises, which dates back to the University's founding in the mid-19th century, and includes such issues as homelessness, and such diseases as cholera, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.