San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 2020
By Dominic Fracassa
San Francisco officials have secured a six-month lease for 51 rooms in a downtown hotel that will soon become temporary supportive housing for people eligible for pretrial release from jail but have no home. The rooms will be available to homeless individuals already released from jail under a pretrial diversion initiative and unhoused people who are currently in pretrial detention. The first residents could be moved in next week. The initiative, the first of its kind at this scale in San Francisco, represents one way for the city to continue thinning out its jail population, a task that has taken on greater urgency during the coronavirus pandemic. Jails, where people have little opportunity to distance themselves from one another, remain among the most at-risk places for outbreaks. “One of our biggest concerns from the beginning of this pandemic has been congregate living situations that are especially vulnerable to outbreaks, like our jails,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “This is yet another innovative effort to respond to these unprecedented circumstances.”
To date, three people have tested positive for COVID-19 prior to booking, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Five department staffers have also tested positive, including two who worked in the jails.
San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department will oversee the supportive housing aspects of the program, dealing with the day-to-day needs of residents and helping to connect them with services. The department will also provide a variety of classes and support groups — delivered over video conference — like anger management and parenting courses, which are common features of the department’s work with people on probation. Adult probation workers will also help find more permanent housing options for residents, said Karen Fletcher, San Francisco’s chief adult probation officer. “We want to create viable plans for people,” she said. Her department has also financed the $500,000 cost of renting the hotel rooms during the six-month pilot program. The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project will provide case-management services for residents. Just 20 rooms will have their own bathrooms, which could complicate efforts to keep residents as far apart as possible. If all 51 rooms fill up, five people would end up sharing a single bathroom, Fletcher said. But “deep cleanings” will be performed twice daily, she said. The rooms will have their own refrigerators and sinks. San Francisco’s jail population has decreased steadily in recent years, thanks in part to expanded pretrial diversion programs, depressed violent-crime rates and reforms enacted to prevent people from staying behind bars because they can’t afford bail. In March, San Francisco Superior Court closed 80% of its courtrooms in response to the pandemic and delayed court filings and trials.
Last month, the state’s Judicial Council, which sets policy for California’s courts, adopted a statewide emergency bail schedule setting bail at $0 for most misdemeanor and lower-level felonies in an effort to safely reduce jail populations statewide. “We should not have to choose between public health and public safety,” Supervisor Catherine Stefani said in a statement. Stefani has raised concerns about the city’s handling of inmate-release programs. “By providing housing, on-site case management and supportive services, this is another critical step to protect the most vulnerable San Franciscans — including victims of crime — during this pandemic,” she said.