San Francisco Passes Law to Secure Rooms for Homeless After Shelter Outbreak

The temporary shelter at Moscone Center West in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo via @StreetSheetSF)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Blasting what many believe to have been a slow response from the San Francisco mayor’s office in protecting the city’s homeless from the coronavirus pandemic, the San Francisco board of supervisors passed an emergency ordinance to procure 8,250 hotel rooms for those with nowhere else to go. 

“Shelter-in-place has to be allowed for everyone, especially our unhoused population,” Supervisor Shamann Walton said.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote follows a coronavirus outbreak at Multi-Service Center South, San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter.

The supervisors said they knew an outbreak was coming but the city’s executive branch wasted time trying to herd the homeless into a massive indoor camp at the Moscone West convention center. 

It was an effort the city quickly abandoned after local newspaper Street Sheet shared a photo revealing rows of close-packed floor mats. 

“This is unfortunate, but this is the scenario we have been preparing for,” San Francisco Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax said of the shelter outbreak.

He said of the 182 people who were tested at the shelter, 91 tested positive for coronavirus, including ten staff members. The shelter is currently being cleaned, Colfax said, and will reopen as a “recovery center” for homeless people not quite sick enough to be hospitalized but too sick to stay at hotels.

Around 753 homeless people have been relocated from the streets and shelters to hotels since last weekend, prioritizing those most susceptible to infection. It also includes everyone who was staying at the Multi-Service Center South.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who introduced the ordinance at Tuesday’s virtual board meeting, said she and her colleagues have been concerned for weeks about homeless people continuing to be housed in shelters and navigation centers where the highly contagious virus can rapidly spread. 

“The mayor’s office spent the bulk of their energy on Moscone West,” Ronen said. “We were pleading with them please don’t do that; it’s not safe.”

Ronen said Dr. Tomás Aragón, the city’s chief health officer, also warned that congregate living spaces were not a good idea, as they did not allow homeless individuals to stay six-feet apart from one another.

Supervisor Matt Haney said a Bay Area-wide shelter in place order issued in mid-March did a good deal to help stave off the spread of coronavirus, but it left out people who are homeless. 

“It was a dangerous and reckless thing to do from the start,” he said. “We have tried to do this through partnership but legislation is absolutely required. I represent a district that has at least half the people who are homeless in our city. If they contract the virus and pass it to others, that will put the public health of everyone in our city at risk.” 

The ordinance requires the city to secure the private rooms by April 26. 

About 93% of the cost will be reimbursable by the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The board noted that sheltering the homeless temporarily in vacant hotels will be far cheaper than if local hospitals have to deal with a surge of infected patients who may need ICU beds and ventilators. 

“The best way to save money is to invest in this now,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.  

At a press conference Monday, Mayor London Breed said it has not been easy to relocate the homeless to hotel rooms.

“We have access to a number of hotel rooms and we have moved hundreds of people out of the shelter system, including every person who was in MSC South. But there continue to be challenges,” Breed said.

Public employees who have never worked with the homeless are being called on to staff the hotel with little training or personal protective equipment. Even more of a challenge, Breed said, has been getting some people to abide by six-foot physical distancing rules. Whatever substance abuse or mental health problems the homeless were facing before have only been amplified by the pandemic and have made some unwilling or unable to follow medical advice or even accept care.

“It’s been very challenging to get even some of the residents who are part of the shelter system and our hotels to comply with the orders, to even wear masks. So it’s not as simple as what people would like to think,” Breed said. “If I could open up every hotel room in this city and allow every single person to have a place to stay knowing that would make a difference and keep everyone safe, it’s not even a question of whether or not we would do it. But the reality is the problems that existed in this city with people who struggle with substance use disorder and mental illness have not gone away because of this pandemic. It’s been so much harder to really care for this population especially when they won’t comply with simple directions or the orders we’re implementing.”

Ronen said Tuesday that not all homeless people in hotels will require 24-hour supervision. “They can take of themselves,” she said.

The board is also looking to close San Francisco’s oldest jail within six months, as part of its effort to reduce its jail population during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Built in 1962, County Jail #4 currently occupies the top floor of the Hall of Justice, a building deemed seismically unsafe and also scheduled for closure in the next year. 

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced legislation requiring the jail’s expedited shutdown, saying, “Covid-19 has further exacerbated existing health and safety concerns at County Jail #4.”

Public Defender Mano Raju applauded the move, saying the jail has long been known for its cramped cells and sewage problems but coronavirus has made the health risks all the more serious.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has raised these urgent concerns to an emergency level. Social distancing and safe ‘sheltering-in-place’ is impossible in conditions where multiple strangers must share one toilet, one sink, and sleep on shared bunk beds. While all congregate living spaces within the jails raise concerns during this pandemic, County Jail 4 has always been by far the worst,” Raju said in a statement. “My office will continue our work to improve conditions inside the jails, while also fighting for people to be released. The most effective way to protect people from COVID-19 continues to be releasing them from jail and allowing them to safely isolate.”

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