City slowly reopening group shelters despite safety concerns

San Francisco is reopening and expanding its congregate homeless shelters despite concerns from advocates about the potential health risks.

San Francisco is reopening and expanding its congregate homeless shelters despite concerns from advocates about the potential health risks.

In April, 70 people tested positive for COVID-19 at the MSC South homeless shelter on Fifth Street, and the Board of Supervisors quickly responded with an ordinance to procure 8,250 vacant hotel rooms as a substitute for communal shelters. According to a dataset on DataSF, as of Friday there were 2,250 occupants sheltered in hotels rooms at 25 sites, 356 of whom are listed as front-line workers.

Homeless advocates believe that The City should continue filling hotel rooms before they begin reopening congregate shelters, where they say it is harder for occupants to safely social distance. According to DataSF, there are four active congregate shelters operating at a limited capacity, with a total of 476 beds housing 314 people. One additional shelter is listed as being in preparation for reopening with 84 beds.

Chris Herring, a doctoral candidate in sociology at University of California, Berkeley who has worked with the Coalition on Homelessness throughout the pandemic, said he believes it’s too soon for The City to begin reinstituting shelters.

“If you’re definitely not willing to open up restaurants like the mayor just announced, why are you going to feel safe with a bunch of people sleeping together?” he said. “There’s definitely pressure to get people inside, but I think the question is why are we now switching to congregate shelters after finally having a big push with hotels and getting them open and staffing them up and figuring this out.”

Deborah Bouck, a spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, confirmed that adult congregate shelters are re-expanding on a limited basis. She said in a statement that shelters will be re-expanding to the extent possible “while following all public health guidelines with social/physical distancing, health screening and testing protocols in place.”

“With proper safety protocols, precautions and social distancing, congregate environments can provide safe shelter and have a role to play in sheltering less COVID vulnerable people,” she said.

Some homeless residents in The City say that they would rather go back to living on the street than to a shelter, where they say there is more to be afraid of than just COVID-19.

“A shelter, ain’t nothing good about that. You could be sleeping on the side of somebody that’s a serial killer,” said a homeless resident in the Tenderloin who goes by Tiddie. “You lay down to sleep and somebody standing by you, he’s talking and got a knife in his hand. You know all kinds of crazy people, I mean really shelters are not good at all.”

Another homeless resident, who wished to be referred to as Moe, said he believes the hotel rooms have been working, and he worries that reopening the shelters would put him and his community at risk.

“Why take the chance of putting somebody in position to catch the virus, you know? I really think they should keep the shelters closed,” he said. “In my opinion what they’re doing right now is a very good thing and they should keep on doing what they’re doing because it’s really helping out people, and I haven’t heard nobody catching no virus and people seem a lot more happy, and people are growing a lot more.”

Beth Stokes, executive director of Episcopal Community Services San Francisco, which has operated the Next Door shelter, says she believes The City is reopening the shelters in part because there are concerns over the ability to fund hotels for the homeless over a long-term period.

“It’s my understanding that these hotels are principally being funded by FEMA, and so I think that’s a resource that has an expiration date,” she said. “We anticipate them to go certainly through Dec. 31, [but] if they’re going longer we’re not clear about what that looks like yet in terms of funding.”

Stokes said that although ECS has had a good relationship with the Department of Public Health in the past, they have had disagreements over their respective visions for what a shelter should look like during the pandemic.

ECS, which previously served as a provider for the Next Door shelter, will no longer run that site under The City’s reopening plan.

“In a building that has so many floors, we just wanted to have kind of a higher level of care support in the building,” she said. “I think that’s really challenging at this time for folks to wrap their heads around when there’s such significant cuts in the budget.”

Despite their differences, Stokes said that she does believe The City will prioritize safety when reopening congregate sites.

“I think The City is very focused on safety in these buildings, particularly congregate sites, I absolutely believe that that’s happening,” she said. “We just had a vision going into the past four months with COVID of what we wanted a site that was going to reopen to look like, and I don’t know if we shared the same vision.”

Safety measures at congregate shelter sites include:

1) Extending stays at all shelters and navigation centers so that no guests are asked to leave because of time limits during the shelter-in-place order.

2) Extending the hours of shelters, added meals and enhanced cleaning protocols to limit the need for guests to leave the shelters and slow the spread of the virus.

3) Reasons that a shelter can ask a guest to leave are limited to high level safety related violations, to help create greater stability at each shelter.

4) Implementing a shelter health screening tool at all shelters, navigation centers and transitional housing programs.

5) Distributing additional cleaning resources

6) Distributing personal protective equipment and supplies needed to implement the protocol.

7) Implement social/physical distancing within in shelter.

8) Partnering with public health to provide testing at sites that have been repurposed or reopened.

9) Working with public health to respond to any emerging health care needs at congregate facilities.

Information from San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing

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