Atop the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco sits a Julia Morgan historical home called The Potrero Hill Neighborhood House or, as the locals call it, The Nabe. The Nabe is usually abuzz with sports and educational programs, a food pantry, peer counseling for at-risk youth, summer camps, after school help, and even mambo classes. Since March, it has sat empty.

In the midst of COVID-19, students like Erica Webb, 14, and Lonyah Morris, 12, cousins who have grown up in and around Potrero Hill public housing and long-time attendees of programs at The Nabe, have recently found their lives turned upside down. For them and many other kids in the neighborhood, COVID-19 has meant much more than just a virus. With school going virtual, program cancellations at The Nabe, and violence spiking in the neighborhood, Erica said, “everything is so hard.”

“Pre-COVID it was way funner, we got to interact with each other and do all these things,” she said in a Zoom interview. “Now we have to stay 6 feet apart, not breathe on each other, not eat together, which is like, we’re a family, how are we supposed to not eat together?”

Taking her classes online, she said, is a challenge that causes her anxiety. “It’s definitely hard on our mental health. I can’t function like that, it’s not for me. I need to be taught one on one or in person; it’s hard for me to be taught anything while online.”

For Lonyah, “school is harder because I have some reading problems.” What was once help in person has turned into phone calls or Zoom sessions. “It’s harder not being physically one on one.”

The Nabe sits right in the middle of the North and South Side of Potrero Hill. According to data provided by Bridge Housing, a nonprofit housing developer working to rebuild Potrero, residents of the North Side of the hill boast an average income of $152,431. On the other hand, their South Side counterparts, who live in Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex (PTA) public housing projects, average an annual income of $16,557. This data indicates that in the span of less than 400 feet, one can walk through a 9 to 1 wealth gap and witness a drop of about $135,000 in annual income. Members of the community say they have always felt this stark difference; with COVID-19, the systemic issues and underlying conditions exacerbated.

The City of San Francisco’s official COVID-19 data web portal addresses this issue quite directly: “Structural racism is closely tied with many of these risk factors and emerging data indicates communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 disease and death.” For Edward Hatter, Executive Director of The Nabe, structural racism in the area is not a new development.

Some individuals have tried to see a silver lining. Uzuri Peace-Green, Executive Director of another Potrero Hill non-profit called CARE (Community Awareness Resources Entity) said, “I look at COVID as a blessing and a curse. COVID shed a bright light on those who claimed they were doing work in Potrero and they actually weren’t. It also made others step up the work they were doing and be held more accountable. It’s also shown the disparities for our community.”

Bridge Housing data shows that PTA’s demographics break down to a little over 50% African American, 27% Hispanic/Latinx, with the rest composed of Asian, Pacific Islander, or other. Health data shows that 43% of residents rate their health as “poor,” 3 in 10 adults have disabilities, and over 60% report feeling high stress and anxiety. Education data indicates that nearly all PTA third graders are below the proficient level for English Language Arts, nearly all PTA fourth graders are below the proficient level for math, and “half of PTA children live in households where their parents did not complete high school.” Truancy also seems to be a big problem with 1 in 4 students being chronically absent from school. Finally, employment data as of 2017 shows that only about 40% of the working age residents are employed. Of those employed, over 60% work in the service industry or are front line workers, it remains to be seen how these jobs will be affected post COVID-19.

According to official San Francisco City COVID-19 data, the Potrero Hill 614 census tract, which fully encompasses the PTA has reported 60 positive cases as of Aug. 7, out of just under 6,000 residents and fewer than ten deaths, a much higher proportion than the rest of the Potrero Hill neighborhood.

“Just look across the street and see the dilapidated conditions people are living in,” T J Brice, Manager of Community Development at Bridge Housing, said in an interview.

“There’s raw sewage, the paint is peeling, there’s mold, when it rains it leaks, there’s rodent infestation and things of that nature so just years of neglect and to see that folks are still living in those environments and doing their best to thrive, it’s inspiring in some ways, and tragic in other ways.”

T J Brice, Manager of Community Development, Bridge Housing (Photo by Kira K Dixon)
T J Brice, Manager of Community Development, Bridge Housing (Photo by Kira K Dixon)

With school going virtual, the canceling of youth sports and educational programs offered at The Nabe, and the stress on families due to job loss and food insecurity, unprecedented issues have appeared in the PTA community. In an interview, Edward Hatter, Executive Director of The Nabe said, “COVID itself isn’t the issue, it’s all the things that have come from COVID.” He noted mental health as the number one issue that kids in the community are facing.

“I have kids suffering from extreme acute anxiety. Oh my god...the domestic violence,” he said. “It is so hard. But it’s so easy to understand. I feel like a prisoner and I have the benefits of being able to come to The Nabe. But I feel like a prisoner, at home, talking to folks on the phone, I feel isolated. So I can’t imagine how they feel.”

Keyon Tate, 14, described how different things were earlier this year.

“Before COVID-19, I was able to go inside without a mask and play basketball, and I could do activities, and interact with people at The Nabe. Now we’re going virtual,” Keyon said. “Every Wednesday we go in with the mask to get groceries and on Thursday we use the ingredients they gave us for a cooking class.”

School was even more difficult. “School was Zoom every day and it was confusing because I barely knew my schedule so I had to ask around. I hope next year will be a better year. No COVID, but if there is COVID at least being able to physically go to school.” What’s more, Keyon couldn’t walk the stage as he’d dreamed for his middle school graduation, and the cruise he’d been looking forward to wasn’t possible.

Kids on the South Side of the hill often do not have access to computers and good wifi that would allow them to participate in Zoom school sessions. Even if they do have access to that technology, according to Hatter, “in many cases, they do not have a parent that can help them stay focused in the Zoom sessions” or with the homework outside of class. The Nabe is attempting to support as much as they can online during this time but there are limits to manpower and hours that they can provide to help remotely with so many dire situations.

That is the situation for Lillian and her daughter, Valeria, undocumented immigrants. “We have to switch off between missing school and missing work because we only have one computer,” the single mother said.

They used to go to the park, but now, collecting groceries from the food pantry at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Potrero Hill has become the family’s Saturday outing. “It’s been hard, not being able to go out, have fun,” Valeria, 12, who has asthma, said.

Lillian and Valeria at the St.Gregory's Episcopal Church. (Photo by Kira K Dixon)
Lillian and Valeria at the St.Gregory's Episcopal Church. (Photo by Kira K Dixon)

Usually, The Nabe is able to offer in-person homework help and education programs. Without those resources, many kids are falling behind. Hatter also says with no activities like their usual summer camps and sports programs, boredom ensues. Due to the cancelation of youth activities at The Nabe and other programs in the city, youth, especially young people between 16 and 25, have been congregating without masks in large groups and have been throwing “Quarantine Parties.” There has also been a spike in violence and domestic violence. Hatter says that mental health issues have been intensified by a feeling of hopelessness related to unemployment, the loss of programming, and falling behind in school, all of which lead to the aforementioned rise in violence and issues with school.

“All the kids have lost their minds,” Peace-Greene also said kids are struggling with being isolated, they can’t run around and play, and their sleep is messed up.

“[Not having] that interaction has thrown them off and a lot of children are going to be behind even more.”

There is a significant amount of concern in the community around kids being able to keep up in school.

Peace-Greene said, “in a lot of families, there’s nobody there making sure children are logging in so they’re falling further behind. In other situations, children are at home all day long when they really don’t need to be at home all day long and school was like a safe haven for them and now they don’t have that.”

E J Jones, a community organizer and local basketball coach who works in developing affordable housing, has seen how the cancellation of sports has affected not just kids in Potrero but in similar neighborhoods across the city.

“It’s really taken a toll on them,” he said in an interview. “That’s their outlet, it’s the way that they express themselves, it’s their opportunity to see friends, their way to disconnect from whatever may be going on at home or at school, and COVID has made that really hard. For some kids, sports is really their ‘why’ and COVID has taken that away from them.”

Jones has been instrumental in organizing several food drives across the city in partnership with Mission Meals. “Food was a major thing, especially the older folks were scared to go to the grocery store, undocumented folks weren’t eligible to receive government assistance, if they were working on a cash basis, they wouldn’t have resources for food … throughout the city it’s really been devastating for folks.” Jones along with a dedicated team came together to organize the Feed the Post Food Drive. “In the modern day of basketball, the big man is the forgotten man of basketball so as a coach we’re always telling kids ‘Hey feed the post, feed the post, give the ball to the big man who is typically forgotten.’ So for the food drive we wanted to make sure to feed the folks who are typically forgotten.”