While homeless advocates and several SF supervisors contend that the city is moving too slowly to get homeless people into shelters with adequate social distance, Mayor London Breed on Friday laid out some of the complications with giving every homeless person a hotel room — not the least of which is security for the mentally ill. She further discussed how hotels would be needed to house the unsheltered who turn up positive for mild cases of the coronavirus and who will need space to recover.
In a video-broadcast speech, Breed said the city was proceeding to provide rooms to those who test positive for COVID-19 and do not need to be hospitalized — like the homeless man staying at the Mission District Navigation Center who tested positive on Thursday. As KPIX reports, priority continues to be given to only the most vulnerable and elderly of the unsheltered population.
"We have some of the best healthcare experts in the world right here in San Francisco," Breed said. "UCSF, CMPC, San Francisco General... the research that they do is world renowned. We are working together to make sure we have a system to address what we know, sadly, will be a situation in which all of our [hospital] beds could be occupied... This is where our hotels will be instrumental. Because if someone is sick and does not need to be in a hospital bed, the opportunity to provide them with a bed in a hotel is so critical to their recovery, and limiting their ability to spread [the virus] to other people."
Mayor Breed addressed the ongoing infighting between her and the Board of Supervisors, as well as calls from homeless advocates to use this opportunity — with tens of thousands of empty hotel rooms — to get people temporarily housed.
"We know that there are a lot of frustration and emotion attached to what we know is a real homeless problem in our city," Breed said. "We are not going to be able to solve our homeless problem in San Francisco with this crisis. We cannot deviate from what information we have and what systems we are putting in place in order to address this challenge and really, truly flatten the curve. This is our ultimate goal."
She also discussed how providing hotel rooms to the mentally ill presents even greater challenges around security — because in order to effectively contain this crisis, those individuals would need to be guarded, mental institution-style, and prevented from escaping.
Breed said the city was working to identify all those unsheltered individuals 60 years old and older, and those with underlying health conditions, who will be provided with hotel beds.
Meanwhile on Friday, Mary Kate Bacalao, policy director at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, spoke to the Associated Press about the situation, calling the crisis around the homeless in the pandemic "absolutely terrifying." "The urgency of this, and the urgency to get people inside, now more than ever cannot be overstated,” she said. "We’re moving way too slowly."
In the same Associated Press piece, Supervisor Hillary Ronen pushed back against the mayor as she has for weeks, saying, "We have the hotel rooms, we have the money, we have the staffing. … Why wouldn’t we do this right now and save thousands of lives?"
Two weeks ago, representatives from 50 San Francisco hotels met with Dr. Grant Colfax, the city's director of public health, and the city has reportedly been in negotiations since to lease at least 8,500 hotel rooms for use in housing both healthcare workers looking to isolate from their families, and coronavirus patients without adequate isolation space — or homes — who do not need hospital care.
As of last year's homeless census, San Francisco had an estimated 8,000 people living on the streets, though that number could have been an undercount of around 1,800 had the previous methodology from 2017 been used. (In 2019, SF brought its count in line with other counties which do not count those homeless individuals who were in jail, rehab, or hospitals at the time of the point-in-time census.)
A new Navigation Center with 200 beds opened in December on the Embarcadero, however San Francisco's shelters have been overcrowded with long waiting lists for years — and during this crisis advocates have been extremely vocal about the obvious fact that these shelters do not provide adequate space for social distancing.
It remains unclear if any other residents of the Mission Navigation Center were infected by the one man who tested positive there this week.