San Francisco Fights Coronavirus by Finding the Homeless a Home

Bloomberg, Mar. 23, 2020

By David R. Baker and Nic Querolo


They are the dispossessed casualties of San Francisco’s economic boom, 8,000 homeless people living among the gleaming new towers of a rich city.


Now, San Francisco’s inability to house them may pose a threat to the entire community.


Afraid that the coronavirus could race through the homeless population and overwhelm local hospitals, city leaders are rushing to get San Francisco’s most destitute off the streets.


The city has leased trailers and hotel rooms to quarantine homeless people showing signs of infection. It’s also moving some of the 2,000 people in its shelters to new locations throughout the city so they aren’t crowded together.


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The same frantic dash is happening across California and in other places, such as New York City, where homelessness has surged. The virus thrives on close contact and poor hygiene, and it hits hardest people whose health has already been compromised.


“In simple terms, they are the ones who disproportionately could die as a result of this crisis,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, announcing an effort to move thousands of homeless people into 42 converted recreation centers across his city.


New York City faces similar pressures but, with roughly 79,000 homeless people, on an even larger scale.


“The shelters have had to switch into emergency mode,” said Christine Quinn, president and chief executive of Win, or Women in Need, which operates 11 shelters across New York City.


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California could see more than 60,000 of its estimated 108,000 homeless people infected during the next two months, Governor Gavin Newsom said. Hospitals would struggle to keep up.


The state has rented two hotels near Oakland’s airport to quarantine homeless people who may have the virus, purchased more than 1,300 trailers and is negotiating for 51,000 hotel rooms as quarantine spaces. It has put $50 million into the plan.


“The whole idea with the hotel/motel conversions, at $50 million, is about bringing people inside with a door, a key and a lock -- with as much supportive services as we can provide,” Newsom said last week.


That urgency pleases some homeless advocates. They just wish it existed before the pandemic.


“Housing should be a human right all the time,” said Elizabeth Bowen, assistant professor with the University at Buffalo. “But we only have these conversations about getting people into housing quickly when there’s some kind of crisis.”


Sill, word of San Francisco’s plans hasn’t reached everyone it’s meant to help. Andrew Cook, sitting in front of Haight-Ashbury’s boarded-up stores Sunday, said he hadn’t heard of the hotels. Police told him if he was feeling ill he should go to the hospital, he said. But mostly, officers were leaving the homeless people who hang out on Haight Street alone.


“They came by like four times I had an open beer, and they didn’t even stop,” said Cook, 42, sitting in camouflage pants and a Grateful Dead shirt. Asked whether he was worried about catching the virus on the street, he said. “I don’t think I’m going to get it.”


“Where am I going to go?,” he wondered, then mused about San Diego, where he thought a friend had a house.


Beggars and Billionaires


San Francisco’s 10-year boom made it an emblem of tech-industry wealth, and runaway gentrification.


The small city -- a 49-square-mile box hemmed in by water on three sides -- has seen home prices soar. Averaging $3,500 for a one-bedroom apartment, rents are the nation’s highest, topping even New York City, according to rental website Zumper.


But as whole blocks were razed and rebuilt, San Francisco’s homeless numbers, already high, surged to record levels, now topping 8,000.


Tent encampments sprouted along downtown alleys and residential streets alike. Workers in the crowded Financial District or bustling SoMa neighborhood share the sidewalks with beggars and billionaires (75 of whom call the city home, a survey shows).


Even before ordering most residents to stay home last week, Mayor London Breed started searching for places to put homeless people showing symptoms of Covid-19.


Where to Isolate?


And it wasn’t just the people on the streets. Some 19,000 San Franciscans live in low-cost hotels with shared cooking spaces and bathrooms. They can’t isolate themselves at home even if they need to.


“Not everyone in our city has access to housing where they can go if they are infected or are exposed to the virus,” Breed said.


San Francisco is trying to line up 3,500 hotel rooms it can use in a pinch to house people who may have the virus and moved its first four homeless people into leased rooms Thursday, said Trent Rhorer, director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency. Hotels with about 2,000 available rooms have expressed interest, he said.


But finding spaces isn’t the only issue. Many homeless people, Bowen said, may not cooperate.


“Telling someone they have to move, or telling them they have go to a location unfamiliar to them -- that is going to be hard for some people,” Bowen said.


Tomiquia Moss, founder of the All Home nonprofit group, worries that the virus will cause a new surge in homelessness as nonessential businesses close and low-income Californians already on the financial edge lose their jobs. Cities are imposing bans on evictions during the crisis, but those won’t last forever.


“We have been saying before the coronavirus that the homelessness you see right now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Moss said.

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