San Francisco Chronicle, April 14, 2020
By Trisha Thadani
San Francisco must procure more than 8,000 hotel rooms for the city’s homeless and frontline workers under an emergency ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The ordinance, which passed unanimously, requires the city to lease 8,250 rooms in hotels and motels by April 26. That is 1,250 more rooms than Mayor London Breed’s staff is currently working to lease. “If we are successful with everyone in San Francisco who is housed, but not everyone who is unhoused, we will be putting everyone in danger,” Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the bulk of the city’s homeless population, said at Tuesday’s meeting. The mayor and Board of Supervisors have sparred for weeks over how many hotel rooms the city should lease and who should move into them. While several members of the board argued that anyone experiencing homelessness should get a hotel room, the mayor and her homeless and health department chiefs have focused on lining up hotels for the vulnerable homeless, which include those who have tested positive for the coronavirus or are exhibiting symptoms, have existing health problems or are age 60 and older.
The emergency ordinance expands the city’s current plans to allow anyone experiencing homelessness who can care for themselves to move into an available hotel room, with the most vulnerable still prioritized.
Those exiting jails who would otherwise be homeless, people living in single-room occupancy hotels, frontline workers on the coronavirus crisis, and people released from local hospitals may also use an available hotel room to quarantine. City officials have already leased more than 2,000 hotel rooms and moved about 780 people into the rooms. Still, neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Mission and Bayview remain crowded with people living in tents and congregating on the streets. San Francisco has been applauded for acting early and swiftly in imposing strict shelter-in-place policies, but officials worry all that progress will unravel if the virus takes hold in the city’s homeless population. The urgency of creating more accommodation for the city’s homeless was sharpened last week when 70 people tested positive for the virus at San Francisco’s largest shelter, MSC South. By Tuesday afternoon, the confirmed number increased to 102 infected residents and staff. Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she and a group of her colleagues spent a month trying to convince the mayor’s office “behind the scenes” to lease more hotel rooms and move as many homeless people into them as possible. The board passed a resolution earlier this month urging the mayor and her agencies to expand plans, but after struggling to get their way, Ronen said they had to resort to legislation. An emergency ordinance does not require two readings and may be enacted as soon as the mayor signs it. Breed has the authority to veto emergency legislation, though it was not clear Tuesday whether she would. “From the get-go, I have not agreed with the mayor’s office and their handling of the homeless crisis within the larger COVID crisis,” Ronen said. Breed said at a Monday news conference that procuring hotel rooms and moving people in them isn’t as easy as simply signing a lease agreement. She reiterated that there also needs to be an adequate amount of food, staff, security and cleaning for each person moved inside. “It is not as simple as people express it is,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we are not trying every single day.” After the vote Tuesday, Andy Lynch, a spokesman for Breed, said opening and operating hotels in a matter of weeks is an “incredible logistical challenge.” “The city is continuing to open and operate thousands of hotel rooms, as we have been doing, under the guidance of our public health leaders,” Lynch said. “We need to make sure we have adequate staffing to run these hotels, which requires hundreds of workers being trained and working around the clock to provide support for people staying in these rooms.” According to the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, it will cost an estimated $58.6 million to lease the hotel rooms per month, and also provide security, food, and personal care and room cleaning. According to the office, FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services could reimburse between about $10 million up to $40 million of the city’s monthly costs — depending on whether the population placed in the proposed rooms are considered eligible for reimbursement. Under the order, the city must secure 7,000 rooms for those who are homeless, 500 rooms for those recently discharged from the hospital who need to be quarantined, and 750 rooms for frontline workers. “This is literally about life and death,” said Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes the Bayview.