SF a magnet for homeless seeking free hotel rooms during coronavirus pandemic

San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 2020

By Phil Matier


Mayor London Breed’s call to “draw the line” on who gets emergency housing during the coronavirus outbreak was prompted by field reports of a sharp increase in the number of homeless people coming into the city looking for a free hotel room. “People are coming from all over place — Sacramento, Lake County, Bakersfield,” Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said. “We have also heard that people are getting released from jail in other counties and being told to go to San Francisco, where you will get a tent and then you will get housing.” As an example, Nicholson said that up to 75% of the estimated 100 campers living in tents along the Fulton Street side of the Asian Art Museum appear to have come to the city with the hope of getting a hotel room. “It would be better than living with this crap,” said Cordell, a recent arrival from Stockton who didn’t give his last name, as he swept up around his tent at the Fulton camp Thursday.


The out-of-town homeless uptick was first picked up by the city’s Homeless Outreach Teams and by the Fire Department, whose paramedics regularly interact with street people.


“We have over 45 stations across the city. Our folks are embedded in their communities and they know who is on the streets,” Nicholson said. Her assessment of the influx was backed up in separate interviews with a homeless outreach worker and a fire paramedic, neither of whom wanted to be identified because they were not sanctioned to speak for the city. The Chronicle is withholding their identities in accordance with its anonymous source policy. “These people are very honest when you talk with them,” the paramedic said. “They come right out and ask, ‘How do I get a hotel room?’” said the paramedic, who added that the homeless sometimes dial 911. When paramedics arrive, the homeless person will cough and ask to be taken to the hospital to be evaluated. If the new arrivals test positive for the coronavirus, they are put in line to be quarantined in a hotel room. The city has leased more than 2,700 hotel rooms as emergency housing for at-risk homeless people — those who are older than 60 or have underlying health problems — and frontline workers. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has said the city needs more and demanded the city lease 8,250 hotel rooms to effectively house the city’s homeless population during the coronavirus emergency. Breed has said that just housing 1,000 people in hotel rooms has proven to be an “incredible logistical challenge.” Hence the mayor’s attempt to tap the brakes. California has secured more than 15,000 hotel rooms across the state for people who get sick and for vulnerable homeless people. It is a mystery why the homeless are coming to San Francisco, but the city’s efforts to house the homeless have put it at the forefront of the issue. There is also the city’s history of being charitable with the homeless. “The reality is we’ve got to focus our limited resources on reaching the people who have been here on our streets for a long time,” Breed said Friday. “These are the people our paramedics and outreach workers know well and that we need to help.” Supervisor Matt Haney, a leader in the push for more hotel rooms for the homeless and whose district includes the Fulton Street camp, said, “There are absolutely thousands of people who have been homeless for a long time here in San Francisco, many who are older or with medical conditions ... who should be given the opportunity to shelter in place just like everyone else.”


The biggest of the new encampments is the one on Fulton Street. While the homeless are being encouraged to use tents to shelter in place and avoid contact with others, the tents there are packed in behind police barricades — often within inches of each other. And while the area is clean, few of the campers wear masks. The city has brought in portable toilets and a washing station, and Public Works crews regularly clean the area. The newly arrived campers are getting a different type of attention from the city as well. The website Mission Local reported that a phalanx of police cars rolled up late Tuesday and parked next to the camp, with lights flashing, and stayed until early Wednesday morning. Police spokesman Adam Lobsinger said the officers were from Tenderloin Station and were sent “onsite as part of our efforts to maintain high visibility, reduce crime and remind the public about sheltering in place and social distancing requirements.” Not exactly the welcome wagon. But then, maybe that’s the point.

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