SF City Hall was ahead of the curve in its coronavirus response. So why is it failing the homeless?

San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 2020

By Heather Knight


Joe Wilson is ticked off. The executive director of Hospitality House, a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin, just wants City Hall to treat the 25 men who live there the same way it’s treating the rest of San Francisco’s residents during the scary COVID-19 pandemic. He wants clear directions. Quick decisions. A real plan. City Hall has come up with that for everybody else, likely saving lives and rightly earning acclaim around the country. But it’s not offering a coherent vision when it comes to homeless people.


“It’s frustrating,” Wilson said. “It’s maddeningly slow, and ultimately it’s putting more people at risk.” He said he asked the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for digital thermometers for a month before getting them. City officials told him to keep his residents six feet apart, but also not kick anybody out — an impossibility in his tiny, packed shelter. Last week, when a homeless person staying at the Division Circle Navigation Center tested positive for COVID-19, Wilson started getting a lot of questions from residents. Several are older than 60 and have underlying health issues, which means they’d be at far more risk of serious illness or death if they contracted the disease. “Folks got really scared,” Wilson said. “They were saying, ‘What’s going to happen to us? Who’s going to get sick next? What do we do?’”


These are all good questions but, unfortunately, there have been few answers. And the answers given seem to change by the day. After all these weeks of preparation and planning, San Francisco still has crowded shelters which aren’t accepting people off the waiting list. On Tuesday afternoon, 1,097 people were on the waiting list they can’t get off — and many of them were over age 60. Instead of getting inside, many of them are filling the sidewalks of the Tenderloin, making it more dangerous for the neighborhood’s legions of families to leave their apartments to take walks and run essential errands. While San Francisco police are starting to cite housed people for violating shelter-in-place rules for their own safety and the safety of the wider community, there’s still no real plan to ensure homeless people get inside — for their own safety and the safety of the wider community. Wilson said San Francisco needs one, unified response to all its residents — not a two-pronged strategy, one for people who have housing and one for people who don’t. “It’s hypocritical, it’s unconscionable, and it’s immoral,” he said. Emily Cohen, spokeswoman for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, readily admitted the messaging has been confusing. And that the Tenderloin in particular poses a major challenge. “As the guidance shifts, our strategies shift,” she said, noting the department is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other public health experts, but that keeps changing too. “That is the nature of being in an unprecedented time. It’s an unknown virus that we’re learning more about every day.” Perhaps nothing symbolizes the confusion better than the ever-changing plans for Moscone Center. Two weeks ago, Trent Rhorer, director of the Human Services Agency, told me it would be converted into an “integrated care shelter” in which 600 people would be split into three pods of 200 people apiece depending on whether they suffered from serious drug addictions, mental health problems or physical health problems. Medical staff would supervise each pod.


He said each person would have a space measuring 100 square feet to themselves and would have access to showers, bathrooms and food. “It’s an enormous facility,” he said. “It’s really an ideal site.” Then, it was scaled down to 395 people. But when the Street Sheet, a newspaper run by the Coalition on Homelessness, published leaked photos of the site over the weekend, it was clear it was far from ideal — and it looked nothing like the picture Rhorer painted. In fact, it looked downright scary. Mats, not beds, were placed on the hard floor close together, with some having folding chairs next to them. That’s it. Rows and rows of pathetic-looking mats interspersed with folding chairs. A homeless man who stays at Sanctuary, a shelter in the South of Market district, said city staff visited Monday morning asking for people to volunteer to move to Moscone. Everybody refused. “It’s insulting, this thing of us getting a mattress on the floor and a chair,” said the man who didn’t want to give his name for fear of losing his shelter space. “You’re on the floor which means every time you want to do something, you’re getting up and down off the floor. Imagine being an old person and having to do that. Your stuff is not protected, and stuff gets stolen all the time.” By Monday afternoon, Rhorer announced Moscone would not be used to thin the population at other shelters and would instead take in homeless people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Another switcheroo? Bay Club San Francisco Tennis and the Palace of Fine Arts were both announced as shelters to thin the population at other shelters, but are now on hold because of Moscone-like concerns about large, congregate shelters being inappropriate, Cohen said. Their use hasn’t been determined.


She said the NIMBY messages from Marina residents posted on Nextdoor and elsewhere about the Palace of Fine Arts didn’t have a role in shutting down that project one day after it was announced. Just as predictable as City Hall dithering on homelessness is San Francisco neighbors turning nasty if a shelter is proposed near them. Marina residents were talking about suing the city to block the shelter and recalling Supervisor Catherine Stefani for supporting it. One woman wrote, “I don’t pay more $ to live in the Marina to feel like I’m in the Mission.” Yes, during a pandemic. When people’s lives are at stake. And when all these Marina residents should be sheltering at home and wouldn’t come into contact with those at the shelter anyway. Stay classy, San Francisco. Now, the plan is to move people from shelters and the streets who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions into vacant hotel rooms. There still isn’t much of a plan for younger, healthier homeless people other than outreach workers telling them to try to space their tents 6 feet apart. Cohen said the intent is to move everyone into hotel rooms, but the city must prioritize those who are most vulnerable and then figure out the logistics of staffing the hotels, providing food and paying for it all. It will be expensive, but we’ve already decided to decimate the local economy because public health is more important so why would we pinch pennies now? “We are running 150 miles per hour in that direction,” Cohen said of opening more hotels for homeless people. “I understand that people are frustrated, and we all wish we could do everything faster.” Wilson of Hospitality House, however, couldn’t wait. He partnered with Supervisor Matt Haney late last week and with a $100,000 donation from the United Methodist Church, moved 19 of the men from his shelter into their own rooms at a nearby hotel. The rest opted to stay behind since — get this — the city hasn’t promised they can return to their hard-to-score shelter beds after the shelter-in-place rules are lifted. Supervisor Dean Preston also raised money, including contributing $10,000 from his own pocket, to move 39 people out of two emergency shelters in his district to a nearby hotel, calling the original plan for mass congregate shelters like the one at Moscone “a terrible plan that’s been terrible all along.” So that’s a relatively happy outcome for 58 homeless people in the city. Now it’s time to address the thousands who are left.

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