Supes vote to acquire more hotel rooms to shelter homeless

Outbreak at major shelter gives urgency to efforts to prevent spread of COVID-19

San Francisco must quickly secure thousands of more hotel rooms to shelter the homeless amid the spread of coronavirus under legislation approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

The board’s vote comes just days after 92 unhoused people tested positive for the disease after an outbreak at one city shelter.

Board members have clashed with Mayor London Breed and her administration for weeks over the best strategy for how to thin out the shelter populations. They have called for those living on the street to be moved into hotel rooms so that they can shelter-in-place, as those who are housed have done under a public health order since March 17.

The board voted unanimously to approve the legislation, which requires The City to procure 8,250 hotel rooms by April 26 with 7,000 designated for the homeless population. Another 500 rooms are for discharged or diverted hospital patients who need a place to quarantine and 750 for front-line workers.

Breed and her administration have had a shifting strategy for addressing the homeless during the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Her response began with the idea of creating large new shelters to thin out the shelter population and only putting into hotel rooms those homeless who tested positive for the virus or were exposed to it, but that approach has since shifted amid criticism to rely more on putting homeless into hotel rooms.

Critics say Breed is still not moving fast enough.

“It can get done quicker. It will save lives,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who introduced the legislation along with Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton, Dean Preston and Aaron Peskin.

Last week, when there was an outbreak of the virus at MSC South, The City’s largest homeless shelter, advocates and board members said it could have been prevented had homeless been moved to hotel rooms sooner. The shelter has since closed, and as of Tuesday 92 homeless people who stayed there and 10 staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Those at the shelter have since been moved into hotel rooms.

Preston said he wished they had approved the legislation sooner, but instead they attempted to try and convince Breed and her administration to change their policies. That “did not result in change fast enough and people are now suffering as a result of the city’s slow response.”

He offered an apology to the unhoused, saying that it took an outbreak to get the city moving in the right direction.

“[The legislation] will force our departments to move faster,” Preston said. “San Francisco can do amazing things when we want to.”

Breed had defended her response to the homeless on Monday and suggested the board’s proposal was unrealistic given the challenges of moving large numbers of the unhoused into hotel rooms, which requires not only contracts with hoteliers but security, food, laundry and cleaning.

Trent Rhorer, the head of the Human Services Agency, who is charged with securing the hotel rooms, said Monday that The City had secured 2,082 hotel rooms at 13 hotels with 880 for first responders and 1,202 for mostly homeless residents.

He said 751 hotel rooms for the homeless are filled with 447 of the total by those who were moved from shelters to thin out the population and allow for social distancing.

Rhorer had said he plans to secure up to 7,000 hotel rooms for homeless and first responders.

There are an estimated 10,000 homeless people in San Francisco.

Ronen said that she has “not agreed with the Mayor’s Office and their handling” of the homeless during the pandemic and that not bringing the unhoused into hotel rooms expeditiously is “wrong from every which way you look at it,” including morally and for health reasons.

The board’s ordinance also requires The City to provide a daily update on its progress in securing the rooms and placing homeless persons in them.

Since the legislation is an emergency ordinance, it only needs one vote to go into effect and required at least 8 of 11 votes to pass. Breed now has 10 days to decide whether to veto it, although any veto could be overridden by eight votes on the board.

Andy Lynch, a mayoral spokesperson, said after the vote that “the opening and operating of these hotels in a matter of weeks is an incredible logistical challenge.”

“The City is continuing to open and operate thousands of hotel rooms, as we have been doing, under the guidance of our public health leaders,” Lynch said. “We need to make sure we have adequate staffing to run these hotels, which requires hundreds of workers being trained and working around the clock to provide support for people staying in these rooms.”

The budget analyst estimates the proposal would cost $58.6 million per month for the hotel rooms along with security, food and room cleaning with possible federal and state reimbursement ranging from $10 million to $40 million.

As of Tuesday, there were 987 confirmed coronavirus cases in San Francisco and 15 deaths.

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