The deadline has come and gone for The City to comply with the Board of Supervisors’ unanimously approved law to procure 8,250 hotel rooms to protect the homeless from coronavirus and officials are still more than 5,000 rooms short.
The City had procured fewer than 3,000 rooms by Sunday’s deadline and moved in about 900 homeless persons, of which about 270 are staying in rooms after either testing positive or being exposed to the virus in some way and in need of quarantine.
The point of the law is to give homeless people the same ability to shelter in place as housed residents before they get sick.
Members of the Board of Supervisors and homeless advocates denounced Mayor London Breed during a press conference for not complying with the law that calls for placing homeless persons into hotel rooms. They even provided a memo to address some of the staffing challenges Breed has suggested was slowing things down.
“It’s not too late for her to change course,” said Supervisor Dean Preston. “Issuing statements stating her intent not to comply is a big problem taken very seriously by the board.”
He added, “It’s not like it’s inevitable that there is this standoff. She has the ability to comply with the legislation.”
Having one’s own place for shelter provides the greatest protection from the spread of the coronavirus, which is why The City ordered everyone to remain in doors except for essential trips like to the grocery store or for exercise on March 17. However, homeless residents were exempted from the order and sheltering in place remains out of reach for thousands who remain in the shelters or in the streets.
The order will last through May, health officials announced Monday.
Breed has consistently said — most recently during a Monday press conference — that the legislation’s hotel room quota was too high, citing challenges in transporting homeless to the hotels, staffing the hotels with monitors and providing food and cleaning services.
“I have to be realistic,” Breed said. She also said that The City is doing a solid job.
“What we have done in the time period we’ve been able to do it, I think in comparison to other major big cities has been remarkable,” Breed said.
But Supervisor Aaron Peskin said in a statement that “in the past few weeks, the Mayor has given a litany of excuses for a lack of notable progress in acquiring an adequate number of rooms for vulnerable populations, all of which the Board of Supervisors and experts have offered solutions for.”
Critics have said that Breed and her administration has moved too slow in securing the hotel rooms, even suggesting an outbreak at the city’s largest homeless shelter, MSC South, that has led to infecting 96 homeless persons, could have been avoided if The City had moved with more urgency.
But Dr. Grant Colfax, head of the Department of Public Health, said Monday that “we are making considerable and significant progress.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said Tuesday that the “political will” was lacking to comply with the law and that challenges often cited for the slow progress are surmountable.
For staffing, she said the city can move whole shelter operations into hotels and use the staff of those shelters and also “hire folks from the unhoused community to be resident advisors.”
“There are a multiple of creative ways to address this,” she said. “We would ask that the mayor simply follow the law. Allow all unhoused people to occupy vacant hotels, not just a select few.”
Supervisor Matt Haney acknowledged there are some challenges, but none that can’t be overcome.
“It is realistic. It can be implemented. And it must,” he said of the law.
“What is missing right now is a plan to actually execute and implement a staffing plan to ramp up quickly,” Haney said. “What they are doing right now is not going to work.”
Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said Monday that while placing homeless in hotel rooms is a challenging operation, they are meeting with success.
“We mostly get stories of people who are so grateful to be there and their only question is will they be able to stay in place for the entirety of the pandemic, and what will happen to them afterwards,” she said.
She added that to help those staying on hotels succeed, The City plans to expand a “buddy” program where people call those in the hotel rooms on a regular basis and “form a really tight connection by phone.”
Board members said they will continue to monitor the progress Breed and her administration are making to comply with the law. On Thursday, a board committee is holding a hearing on the issue.
“Every hour and every day that we waste is compromising not just the health of folks who are unhoused but also the broader public health in San Francisco,” Preston said.