Homeless San Franciscans have always faced a public health crisis

San Francisco Examiner, April 19, 2020

By Sasha Perigo

One in 10 of San Francisco’s COVID-19 patients is housing- insecure

San Francisco earned accolades in the national press this week for success in containing the spread of COVID-19. But the struggles of thousands of San Franciscans remains unwritten. While COVID-19 infection rates among the general public decrease in San Francisco, infection rates among homeless people are skyrocketing. In Mayor London Breed’s Wednesday press conference, she announced 1,113 San Franciscans had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Of those thousand patients, 102 were residents or staff members at The City’s largest congregate homeless center Multi-Service Center South, that the mayor opened against recommendation from health officials. At least 23 cases of the virus have been contracted in single-room occupancy hotels, which are densely populated supportive housing facilities. Unhoused people now account for nearly one in 10 of The City’s COVID-19 patients. An astounding 20 percent of COVID-related hospitalizations at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital have been of homeless people, according to San Francisco Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax. We need to take action immediately, and city Supervisors have a plan. At Tuesday’s Board meeting, the Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution to rent out 8,250 of the city’s mostly vacant hotel rooms for use by at-risk San Franciscans. Seven thousand of these rooms will go to homeless people, while the remaining 1,250 will be reserved for front-line workers and discharged hospital patients. Since the Supervisors passed their hotel room resolution unanimously, it is veto-proof. The mayor is both tasked with, and legally required to, implement it. But there’s no time to lose, and advocates including The Coalition on Homelessness say she’s dragging her feet. At Wednesday’s press conference, Mayor Breed announced that 874 homeless people who are members of vulnerable populations had already been moved into hotel rooms. Another 1,500 are currently living in congregate shelters. When asked if she planned to implement the Board’s resolution, she said the city needed to do things based in “reality.” While we continue to hear he-said she-said arguments from elected officials about why thousands remain on the streets or in congregate living situations, I can’t help but wonder if there’s another reason for the reluctance to move homeless people into hotels. Eventually, when things return to normal, she’ll have to ask them to leave. The City forcibly removing thousands of otherwise homeless people from housing won’t be a pretty picture. If the city ends up kicking people out of hotel rooms without providing alternative housing, it will lay bare the harsh truths of our current reality: COVID-19 wasn’t the start of health problems for homeless San Franciscans. Living on the streets not only exposes people to the elements, but it can aggravate pre-existing health conditions and drive people to alcoholism or drug abuse. The average life expectancy of someone who has experienced homelessness is just 50, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. In the three years prior to 2019, over 400 people died homeless on San Francisco’s streets, according to the Department of Public Health. To make matters worse, homeless San Franciscans regularly report harassment at the hands of The City. Some have even alleged that their life saving medications were confiscated alongside their tent and other belongings during routine sweeps. The only solution to homelessness is housing. If the solution to COVID is hotel rooms, the solution to the health problems homeless people face on a daily basis should be the same: Four walls and a roof. This is an emergency. City officials must do everything in their power to get homeless people in hotel rooms immediately and not rest until everyone is permanently housed. Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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