Advocates and city supervisors have called for The City to move homeless people into hotel rooms to allow them to shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Advocates threaten legal action over coronavirus homelessness response

Mayor has said she cannot support legislation setting deeadline for moving unhoused into hotels

San Francisco could be hit with a lawsuit for failing to comply with legislation requiring The City to put homeless people in hotels during the coronavirus crisis, according to a demand letter issued Tuesday.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness and backed by the ACLU, delivered a letter to Mayor London Breed demanding she follow unanimously-passed Board of Supervisors legislation requiring the placement of unhoused people into 7,000 hotel rooms by the end of April. The letter is considered the first step toward a lawsuit if it goes unanswered and unfulfilled.

“[Breed] can always choose to not follow the law and the question is what are the consequences?” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area. “Nobody wants a lawsuit to be the way.”

After supervisors passed the emergency legislation on April 14, Breed said in a piece on Medium that she would not sign legislation to mandate the placements without a plan to supervise the hotels.

“I will not support a law requiring us to open thousands of rooms before we can do so safely, let alone by April 26th,” Breed wrote.

The demand letter comes one day after UC Hastings College of the Law and merchants also filed a lawsuit against the City for allegedly treating the Tenderloin as a “containment zone” for drugs and homelessness.

Breed said Monday she didn’t think that lawsuit was helpful during a crisis and argued that solving homelessness isn’t simply a matter of housing.

“There are so many people with complicated issues,” Breed said. “We’re not housekeepers, we’re not babysitters, but we’re being treated that way.”

Officials have secured 2,731 hotel rooms for front line workers and homeless people so far, many of which were in use as of Tuesday.

The letter demands Breed follow the legislation, removing the threat to the legal policy process, as well as test all shelter residents. A genetic research startup, Color, was set to start testing shelter residents on April 22 until the City urged it to change course to focus on nursing homes and other high-priority populations, the San Francisco Public Press first reported.

The groups argue that not testing shelter residents in congregate settings at high risk of coronavirus spreading is a matter of public health, violating Welfare and Institutions Code section 17000. The code requires cities and counties to provide support to all poor, indigent, incompetent, and physically unable, and is rarely invoked, Della-Piana said.

“In the context of such a pronounced health threat, the City has to do bit more to provide the minimum public health protections,” Della-Piana said. “This potential legal threat is just one piece of many, many people lining up to say this is the right thing to do for public health.”

The civil rights group gave the City seven days to respond and said they hope to work it out with city officials. A representative from the City Attorney’s Office did not respond by press time.

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