Supes push to procure hotel rooms for the homeless as coronavirus spreads

‘Friction’ between board and mayor over strategy to protect those living on the streets

Members of the Board of Supervisors announced emergency legislation Tuesday that would require The City to procure more than 8,000 hotel rooms to shelter homeless persons after weeks of debate with Mayor London Breed who has resisted the idea.

The legislation requires The City to procure 8,250 hotel rooms by April 26, around when a surge of coronavirus cases is expected in California.

There were 622 confirmed cases of coronavirus in San Francisco as of Tuesday and in recent days three homeless people in two of The City’s shelters have tested positive for the respiratory illness caused by novel coronavirus, Covid-19.

The details of the legislation were announced during a virtual press conference with Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, Dean Preston, Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin.

The full board intends to vote on the proposal next Tuesday, and under emergency rules requires at least eight votes to pass. Should the board approve it Tuesday Breed has 10 days to decide whether to sign it or veto it. However, the board could override any veto with eight votes, although it would create about a week delay.

Supervisors expressed frustrations with Breed and her administration for how they are handling the homeless during the deadly pandemic, including with Trent Rhorer, who is head of the Human Services Agency and responsible for sheltering in cases of emergency.

“My colleagues and I worked behind the scenes and publicly everyday to change HSA’s approach,” Preston said.

But they are not satisfied.

Of the hotel rooms acquired under the legislation, 750 would be for workers on the frontline like nurses, 500 for medical quarantine, and 7,000 for people experiencing homelessness in a shelter or out on the streets.

Breed’s plan was to use large shelters like a 400-bed Moscone West shelter that opened last week to thin out the shelter population, but she scaled back those plans Monday amid condemnation from homeless advocates who said the congregate settings were unsafe and subjected the homeless to greater risks of contracting the coronavirus than if they had their own hotel room.

Notably, last month San Francisco’s Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon told the board that “from a disease-transmission perspective, absolutely having your own room is the best.” Since March 17, San Francisco has ordered people to stay home to protect themselves and slow the spread of the virus, but those who are homeless do not have that option.

Breed said Monday she would instead reduce the size of the Moscone shelter and thin out shelters using hotel rooms. Rhorer said the priority would go toward those who are 60 and older and with underlying health conditions.

The administration had initially said they would prioritize for the hotel rooms homeless persons who need to quarantine because they tested positive or were exposed to the virus to free up hospital beds, but later said they would also use them for those who are elderly and with underlying health conditions.

But board members argue every homeless person who can self care in a hotel room should have that opportunity. They also said that The City has yet to move any homeless into hotel rooms who have not yet been exposed to the virus and that they have lost vaulable time.

“This is a moral imperative. We will be judged in the future by how San Francisco dealt with our most vulnerable,” Peskin said. “It is time to step it up.”

He added, “The peak is yet to come.”

Peskin also said that while the legislative and executive branches are working well together in The City’s response to the virus, when it comes to the homeless strategy there is “friction.”

The legislation requires “daily reporting so that we can actually keep track and know that we are acting proactively and protecting people and their health,” Haney said.

The legislation also “urges the mayor to use her powers to commandeer facilities where necessary to make this happen as soon as possible,” he said.

Mayoral spokesperson Andy Lynch defended Breed’s response in a statement and said that the “The City is moving at an unprecedented pace under crisis circumstances.”

“City staff is working every day to address the challenges presented by this crisis, including how to keep our unsheltered population healthy,” Lynch said. “This has been one of our top priorities since the Mayor declared a state of emergency and it continues to be today.”

He continued, “We are moving forward with getting our vulnerable residents into hotel rooms, and prioritizing public health in all of our decision-making for those living in congregate settings.”

The supervisors could not provide a cost for their proposal Tuesday but said those details should be available in time for the board’s expected vote next week.

“We cannot wait for people to get sick before we move them into a private room,” Haney said.

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