Life can be pleasant for those isolated with coronavirus in SF homeless hotels

San Francisco Chronicle, April 26, 2020'

By Kevin Fagan


Being essentially locked up in a 12-by-20-foot box for weeks at a time turns out to be pretty darn nice, to hear Richard Steenson tell it. He gets three good meals a day, all the television he wants to watch, and more peace and quiet than he’s had in a solid year. It helps that the box is a room at an upscale boutique South of Market hotel and it’s paid for by the city of San Francisco. Steenson is there because he was in the big wave of residents who tested positive in early April for the coronavirus at the Multi-Service Center South homeless shelter — 96, the biggest cluster of homeless positives in the western United States. When the shelter on Fifth Street got emptied into city-leased hotels, Steenson’s new life as an isolation guest began, and he’s now two weeks into the experience. He can’t come or go, so his world is defined by that small room with two beds, a sink, a bathroom and wide windows looking onto what would be a busy street if the pandemic hadn’t stopped the world in its tracks. Not bad, he said. All things considered, that is. The main thing that worries him is when he’ll have to leave his new digs.


“Life is awesome in here,” Steenson, 56, said Friday. “The meals have improved immensely since I got here, and the only trouble is this sword of Damocles hanging over my head about when they might make me move out. I really just want to stay here until this whole coronavirus danger is over.” City homeless managers are carefully utilizing the limited spaces they have, and the plan they started last week is to move people back into the deep-cleaned MSC South or a pop-up shelter at Moscone West once they’ve had COVID-19 and recovered. The widespread assumption is that they’ll be immune then, although the World Health Organization warned Friday that immunity after infection is still an open question. But for Steenson and his friends, hotels are the only way they’ll feel fully safe from the virus. A study released last week by UC Berkeley contends that, indeed, the best way to protect homeless people — who because of the toll of life on the streets are extra-vulnerable — is to place them into single-occupancy units such as hotels or apartments, regardless of whether they show symptoms. Not shelters, even if their population is thinned for physical spacing.


“You should be able to close a door and isolate,” said Dr. Colette Auerswald, a UC Berkeley professor and lead author of the study. “And remember this: It’s cheaper than an ICU bed.” Steenson is a jack of many trades — English teacher in South America, children’s theater actor, restaurant worker — and he became unemployed a year ago when the doughnut shop he managed closed. Still dealing with an earlier back injury, he turned to MSC South while he regrouped after his money dried up. He was applying for jobs when the coronavirus tossed his plans into the dumper.


With the economy tanked and his body still fighting the coronavirus, a free hotel room turned out to be the perfect place to wait things out, he said. He’s in the same boat as about 900 other homeless people who’ve been moved into hotel rooms, most of them from shelters, as the city struggles to keep the pandemic from racing through its 8,000-strong unhoused population. So far, about 2,600 hotel rooms have been secured by the city, and some of those will go to first responders who need respite. That means Steenson is one of the lucky ones. But because the city has tried to keep locations of the hotels private to minimize disruption and coronovirus-positive guests can never leave their rooms, little is known about what life is like in the hotels. Steenson and several other people contacted by The Chronicle say they by and large like it, although they do have quibbles. Answers from the front desk to requests for information or help can be frustratingly slow in coming, for instance. But for many, like 47-year-old Brian McFarland, the hotel room is better than anything he’s had in years. “Sure beats the streets and the shelters,” said McFarland, who got quickly placed because he has underlying conditions, including diabetes. He feels sick but hasn’t tested positive for the coronavirus yet. Steenson, like the other 95 infected people at MSC South, didn’t show any serious signs of the disease when he tested positive. But since getting his room, he’s had fever, body aches and a persistent lack of taste and smell. None of it is bad enough to put him into the hospital, and he gets regularly checked by medical staff. So he’s hunkering down — feeling not terrible, not great. What that leaves is a day-to-day routine that might wear thin for some. Not him. The tedium of being stuck inside is tough, especially for someone like Steenson who enjoys the outdoors, but he makes the best of it.


Steenson wakes up early, makes coffee, then does exercises to stay in shape. Breakfast comes, delivered by unseen hands with a knock on his door and left on the doorstep. After checking the TV news, he gets in a little texting or internet surfing on his smartphone, but with no family to ring, no wife, no kids, he has only a few friends to call. Steenson’s laptop is broken, so he’s stuck with the phone. Next up is lunch, then a movie on TV — “I’ve watched every ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie at least a couple of times now,” he said with a laugh — or maybe a good book. “The Wych Elm” by Tana French filled a few pleasant hours. Usually a nurse or social worker calls during the day to check up on him and ask if his symptoms have gotten any worse, but Steenson sees nobody in person except for street scenes outside his window. The staff “takes the whole isolation thing very seriously,” he said. “You can’t leave the room.” Dinner gets left on the doorstep, like the other meals. More surfing news sites on the phone follows, with maybe a little TV. Then it’s time for bed. Over the past two weeks, Steenson has kept a journal through texts to The Chronicle that ring with dry wit, or at times frustration. Like Friday, when he asked for cleanser so he could mop up a mess after he got sick.


“I don’t have any disinfectant, but they gave me this dish soap to clean my diarrhea-spattered toilet so it’ll probably work just as well, right? I don’t have any syringes so I guess I have to do shots,” he texted with a picture of a Palmolive bottle, riffing on President Trump’s musing the day before about injecting disinfectant to fight the coronavirus, an idea horrified doctors instantly rejected. Or April 20, when he was aching for his first meal delivery of the day. “They’re trying to break their record here; about 16 hours since dinner. Who is running this s— show,” Steenson texted. When the meal finally arrived, he exulted: “Spectacular lunch box arrived. Feel like a kid on Xmas morning ... dinner may come in a minute & I may risk rupturing something and try for an ursine food coma.” He gradually took to jokingly calling the staff “zookeepers” and residents like himself “plague rats.” Writing things down has been comforting, he said. So has self-discipline. “The thing is to find a routine and stick as close to it as you can so you can maintain a sense of normalcy,” Steenson said. “I get up and have some coffee so I’m not napping during the day and can keep to a normal sleep cycle.


“The days actually go pretty fast. When I was feeling crappier early on, all I could think about was food — like Pavlov’s dog, waiting for the next meal. But now?” He took a deep breath. “Before this crisis hit, I was just getting back to the place where I could work again,” he said. “So I’m ready when it’s over. All I need is a haircut and a good copy of my Social Security card, which got lost. And, of course, a safe place to wait it out — which is hopefully this hotel room.”

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