The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, as expected, unanimously voted to approve an emergency ordinance that calls on the city to put all currently homeless individuals in leased hotel rooms within two weeks. The vote shows that the Board has veto-busting power should Mayor London Breed continue to hold firm that the city only needs to house the most vulnerable among the homeless population, and those who have already tested positive for the coronavirus.
The emergency measure calls for the city to lease 8,250 hotel rooms for both the homeless and frontline workers needing isolation by April 26. As of last count, only a few hundred homeless people had been placed in hotel rooms because they were either over 60 years old, had underlying health issues, or had tested positive for COVID-19 and did not require hospitalization. The Mayor's Office and other officials have said that hotel rooms need to be reserved for SRO residents who require better isolation, convalescing COVID-19 patients who no longer need hospitalization and don't have proper isolation at home, and healthcare workers and first-responders seeking to self-isolate from their families.
But, as the Chronicle points out, this ordinance only represents a difference in accounting of 1,250 rooms — the Mayor's Office has said it is currently seeking to lease 7,000 hotel rooms, at a cost of $58.6 million per month, which includes the cost of food, maintenance, and security for these hotel-shelters. Of those around 2,000 have already been procured. Under this ordinance, 7,000 rooms would specifically be for the homeless, with the remaining 1,250 for convalescing patients and frontline workers.
For the last month, SF supervisors have argued that the issue of homelessness — which has plagued San Francisco for more than three decades and is now a widespread problem across all large west-coast cities — should be central to the city's course of action when it comes to the pandemic health crisis. This is justified in many ways because of the unique vulnerabilities of the unhoused to the coronavirus — both because of communal settings like homeless shelters and because of underlying health factors that homeless people are more likely to have.
But the Mayor's Office and Department of Emergency Services have maintained that it isn't necessary or fiscally responsible to use the health crisis to temporarily solve the homeless crisis — as homeless advocates point out the injustice of tens of thousands of hotel rooms sitting empty.
"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," said Breed spokesman Andy Lynch in a statement to the SF Business Times on Tuesday evening. "The opening and operating of these hotels in a matter of weeks is an incredible logistical challenge and city employees are working tirelessly to make it happen."
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who has been pushing for housing all of the homeless since this crisis began, tells 48 Hills that supervisors have been working "nonstop behind the scenes" to try to avoid making this a political issue. But since the mayor and other officials in City Hall haven't budged, the Board is taking this route — and if the mayor refuses to sign the order or tries to veto it in the next ten days, the Board can take another vote to override her veto.
Ronen says that no other action the city can take right now is more important than saving the lives of homeless people. "We have not made it a fiscal priority to save their lives like we have our own," she says in a comment to the Business Times.
"If we are successful with everyone in San Francisco who is housed, but not everyone who is unhoused, we will be putting everyone in danger,” says Supervisor Matt Haney, in a comment to the Chronicle.
Stay tuned as this battle continues to play out.
Photo: Rhema Kallianpur