A major coronavirus outbreak at the St. Vincent de Paul Society Multi-Service Center on Fifth Street, shown here in February 2019, has increased political pressure to get homeless people off the street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Breed defends efforts to protect homeless after coronavirus outbreak in shelter

Facility closes down for cleaning after 91 test positive for coronavirus

After more than 80 homeless residents and 10 staff tested positive for the coronavirus at San Francisco’s largest shelter — prompting its closure — Mayor London Breed defended her handling of the unhoused during a press conference Monday.

Advocates and members of the Board of Supevisors have said the outbreak could have been avoided if more people living in shelters like MSC South, where the outbreak occurred, had already been moved into hotel rooms. Critics have also pointed to crowded conditions in areas such as the Tenderloin, where tents are proliferating, as evidence that The City has not done enough to prevent the spread of disease.

As part of the criticism of Breed’s efforts, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on legislation to require The City to procure 8,250 vacant hotel rooms within two weeks, which would greatly increase the approximately 2,000 hotel rooms under contract to date. The proposal requires 7,000 of them to be designated for homeless persons.

Breed, however, praised the efforts of city departments Monday for their handling of the homeless population, and suggested the board’s proposal was unrealistic.

“It is not as simple as people would like to express that it is, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t trying every single day,” Breed said.

She pointed to challenges, saying “it has not been easy to provide adequate staff” by training existing city employees to monitor the hotels. And she said, “It’s been very challenging to get even some of the residents who are part of our shelter system in our hotels to comply with the orders, to even wear masks.”

She also said that the homeless population has mental health and substance use challenges that “have not gone away because of this pandemic.”

“In fact, it’s been so much harder to really care for this population,” she said.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who introduced the legislation with Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton, Dean Preston and Aaron Peskin, said putting more homeless in hotel rooms will save lives.

“People in my district, people throughout the city are being put at risk unnecessarily and if we don’t do something urgently and change how slowly this has happened people are going to die,” Haney said.

Haney argued Monday that the infections at MSC South were “entirely preventable,” all The City had to do was move people out into hotel rooms earlier.

Dr. Grant Colfax, head of the Department of Public Health, said Monday at the press conference with Breed that since last week 182 people from the shelter have been tested, of which 57 were staff. He said 81 homeless people staying there have tested positive and 10 staff.

“This is unfortunate. But, again, this is the scenario that we have been preparing for,” Colfax said. “We have done and will continue to do everything we can do to respond and protect health.”

Those in the shelter were moved over the weekend into “hotels — isolation, quarantine or shelter-in-place sites — depending on guests’ needs,” Colfax said.

“This was a monumental effort, moving about 100 people,” he said. The next step will be to clean the shelter and prepare it to serve as a recovery center for people experiencing homelessness who have coronavirus, Colfax said.

Trent Rhorer, the head of the Human Services Agency, who is charged with securing the hotel rooms, said at the press conference that “as of today we have secured 2,082 rooms” among 13 different hotels.

Of the hotel rooms, 880 are for first responders and 1,202 for mostly homeless residents, of which 751 are filled.

Rohrer said that 447 of the 751 rooms are occupied by those who were moved from the shelters to thin out those populations to have proper social distancing.

There are 957 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in San Francisco. The City could not provide data Monday on how many of the cases are among homeless people, nor could they provide data on if any of the 15 deaths from the disease were of homeless persons.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee voted Monday to send the legislation to the full board for a vote Tuesday. It would take eight of 11 votes on the board to approve. The legislation also requires the Department of Emergency Management to report daily to the Board of Supervisors on their progress in providing sufficient numbers of private rooms to meet the needs of these vulnerable groups.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the San Francisco Examiner Monday that he was “inclined to vote for it.”

“I think there’s general agreement we need to bring more hotel rooms online as quickly as possible,” Mandelman said.

Ronen said during the committee hearing that “so far our city government’s public health response has failed people in congregate settings and people who are unsheltered and put all of us at risk.”

Ronen has previously called Breed’s response a shifting strategy that began with a plan to only place homeless into hotel rooms if they become infected or exposed to the virus. That later changed to putting into hotel rooms those who are aged 60 or over or have underlying health conditions.

Rhorer said his goal is to bring under contract up to a total of 7,000 hotel rooms for homeless and first responders, but he did not provide a timeline.

The legislation requires The City procure by April 26 7,000 hotel rooms for the homeless, 500 rooms for certain types of quarantine and 750 for first responders and health care workers.

There are as many as 10,000 homeless persons in San Francisco, according to the most recent homeless point-in-time count.

“With this emergency ordinance we will correct our course and move vulnerable unhoused individuals out of congregate settings and off the street into private hotel rooms as quickly as possible where they can finally self quarantine and shelter-in-place like those of us that are blessed enough to have a home,” Ronen said.

The proposal comes at steep cost, but estimates vary.

The latest cost estimate from a budget analyst’s report said room rates plus additional services like security, food and cleaning will cost $58 million a month.

The City is entitled to reimbursement for a portion of costs from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Office of Emergency Services, but the amount depends on who is placed in the rooms.

“FEMA and Cal OES reimbursements to the City could range from less than $10 million up to $40 million of the City’s estimated $58.6 monthly costs, depending on whether the population placed in the proposed rooms are considered eligible for reimbursement,” the budget analyst report said.

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