City homeless response team shifts from enforcement to coronavirus outreach

HSOC to suspend sweeps, change tactics under new leadership


San Francisco Examiner, Mar. 17, 2020

By Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez


Well, while it’s harder to find a silver lining in this coronavirus pandemic than it is to find toilet paper in a Walgreens, there might be a small ray of light striking our local homeless community.


What The City has sometimes euphemistically called “encampment resolutions,” and what everyone else calls homeless sweeps, will cease, at least for now.


I repeat: No more sweeps.


That’s partially because San Francisco’s homeless coordinating arm, the Healthy Streets Operations Center, is under new leadership. Jeff Kositsky, the head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, is taking the reins of HSOC as its manager this week.


But it’s also for a far more practical reason: HSOC will refocus its efforts on making sure The City’s unhoused population maintains safe social distancing, and to ensure that those who need to be quarantined are offered those needed facilities.


And to best coordinate efforts to aid our city’s homeless, HSOC will move its operations into the Emergency Operations Center now operating out of the Department of Emergency Management headquarters on Turk Street.


That makes sense. HSOC is already a unified effort between Public Works, the San Francisco Police Department and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Now they will be in the trenches alongside health professionals working to stem the growing pandemic in San Francisco.


The shifting game plan comes per an announcement from Kositsky and other city leaders Monday.


While the big news of the day was Mayor London Breed’s order for all San Franciscans — and the wider Bay Area, per other leaders — to stay in their homes until at least April 7, officials also dropped the details on how those without homes would be quarantined.


HSOC, the team of city workers who normally respond to 311 calls about pernicious tent encampments, will now shift its focus to stem the spread of coronavirus among homeless folk, Kositsky told me.


“During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are shifting normal HSOC operations,” Kositsky said in a statement. “Our focus will be encouraging homeless residents to follow best public health practices, such as maintaining at least six feet of distance between existing tents with no more than one person per tent, and utilizing public sanitation services.”


He added, “we will, of course, continue to enforce the law in cases of illegal activity, but our focus right now is reducing the spread of coronavirus in our community.”


When I asked if that new focus would mean ceasing encampment resolutions, Kositsky answered “yes.”


But that doesn’t mean encampments won’t be seperated if they are in large enough groups, as encampments of more than five tents may pose a public health risk in terms of spreading COVID-19, or the coronavirus. Social distancing is the new name of the game, with all of us.


To my understanding, however, that may means some folks are asked to move their tents to a neighboring alley, for instance.


The big change is that homeless people’s tents will no longer be confiscated, which has long been a practice of Public Works. Those tents may prove useful, Kositsky noted, in keeping unhoused people safe from the coronavirus.


He even has the police and Department of Public Health on board, who helped craft the new policy.


This is Kositsky’s first major task as new manager of HSOC. We’ll see how long he’ll be able to keep this promise, as politically, there is a lot of pressure from housed neighbors to sweep tent encampments.


For years, homeless advocates have asked The City to stop sweeps, which often focus on breaking up encampments in a Whac-a-Mole fashion, moving unhoused residents from block to block, street to street. But they quell the complaints of neighbors, at least temporarily, easing political pressure on Mayor London Breed, who herself has publicly said San Francisco does not “sweep” the homeless.


Kositsky has previously said HSOC under his direction would not focus on 311 complaints and would instead pursue long-term solutions for unhoused people, which should ultimately help everyone, including complaining neighbors.


But now this pandemic has brought about that shift in focus, swiftly, with little fanfare. It also brings new challenges.


Helping those without homes is especially challenging. How do you quarantine someone without four walls and a roof?


The answer — give them a place to live — is easier said than done


To that end, San Francisco needs roughly 3,500 living units to quarantine and isolate homeless folks and also those who live in Single Room Occupancy hotels, who cannot fully isolate themselves due to shared kitchens and bathrooms in those housing situations, said Trent Rhorer, director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency.


At Monday’s City Hall coronavirus press briefing, Rhorer said San Francisco has about 400-450 units on hand to activate should a need to quarantine those populations arise.


“It’s difficult to project numbers,” Rhorer told reporters. “It’s even more difficult to project the arc of infection.”


Some numbers he already knew — The City has already activated 30 units for people who are homeless or live in an SRO, to stay in while they await coronavirus testing.


Rhorer also said that new protocols at local hospitals will see people without housing who test positive for coronavirus sent to those shelter spots.


“A person who is housed would likely be told to go home and self-quarantine,” Rhorer said, but “hospitals will not release a houseless person who cannot self-quarantine.”


Instead, they will be sheltered by The City.


And for those who are on The City’s streets in tents, at least for the duration of this pandemic, they may finally get some peace from the endless, pointless sweeps. All it took was an international health crisis.

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