Last Thursday evening, Olivia Park pointed a bullhorn at the facade of Mayor London Breed’s San Francisco residence. Dressed in a white lab coat, Park introduced herself as a San Francisco native on the verge of graduating from medical school.
“I’m just about to embark into the workforce as a doctor for the first time,” Park said. “I cannot stand by as our city leaders blatantly ignore legislation that is essential to preserving public health.”
Park was referring to an ordinance passed unanimously by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on April 14. The ordinance stipulated that the city would procure 8,250 empty hotel rooms and use most of them to shelter the city’s unhoused residents. It would acquire the hotel rooms either by negotiating with revenue-strapped hotel owners up front, or by commandeering them and figuring out reimbursement later.
The purpose of the legislation was twofold: to keep homeless people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic by giving them the space to practice social distancing, and to protect all residents of the city and beyond by eliminating crowded, contagion-prone living conditions in shelters and encampments.
At first, Breed’s administration barely acknowledged the plan. When they did, they proceeded at a snail’s pace, and the deadline to enact the legislation came and went with little progress. Thousands of homeless people are still on the streets and in shelters, where they are needlessly contracting and spreading the virus right now.
The protest on Thursday was an old-fashioned die-in updated for the pandemic age. Protestors lay motionless on the pavement six feet apart. Some of them wore all black. Others, many of them medical students and professionals, wore white coats. Behind them, other protestors held signs that read “Housing is the cure,” “This is a public health nightmare,” and “Hotel rooms not hospital beds.”
I caught up with Park privately between the time the police arrived and when the crowd dispersed. “We have these empty rooms sitting there for people to be housed,” she said. “Los Angeles has moved up to a thousand people who are unhoused into hotel rooms per day. It’s totally possible.”
I asked Park why she thought Mayor Breed was dragging her feet. “I don’t know,” she answered. “We have all the research. We have all the data. It’s a question of political will.”
Refusing to Adhere to Social Distancing
Freshman supervisor Dean Preston is a longtime tenant organizer and homeless advocate in San Francisco. Naturally, when the shelter-in-place order was first implemented on March 17, the first question that crossed Preston’s mind was: What about those who don’t have a place of their own?
On March 17, Breed’s department heads and public heath officials attended a hearing held by the Board of Supervisors regarding the COVID emergency response. There, the supervisors learned that Breed’s plan for the homeless was “basically mass shelters,” says Preston. “The strategy that was laid out was the opposite of what we should be doing.”
Preston and other supervisors raised red flags immediately, objecting that mass shelters don’t solve the problem of contagion and noting that the city’s own chief health officer had pointed to the danger of congregate living situations. They quickly called for the homeless to be moved into hotel rooms where they could physically isolate, but the mayor’s office brushed the idea off.
Two weeks later, on March 31, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution for the hotel relocation of the homeless, accompanied by a research-heavy memo explaining how precisely it could be accomplished. Over the coming weeks, up to two hundred homeless people were moved into hotels, quarantined because they had already been exposed to COVID-19. But otherwise Breed ignored the resolution, which called for mass preventative rehousing.
On April 5, images were leaked showing the preparations to follow through on the city’s original mass-shelter plan, causing an uproar. “All these mats on the floor, really close to each other,” says Preston. “It was just outrageous.” Then, on April 10, a massive COVID-19 outbreak was confirmed at the city’s largest homeless shelter, MSC South, a facility with shared bathrooms where bunk beds stand two feet apart.
Meanwhile, London Breed was being hailed in the Atlantic as a rising political star of the pandemic. The April 12 article even gave her credit for personally instituting an early shelter-in-place order, when, in fact, she was merely complying with a regional order delivered by California health directors. (Breed had decided to give her own shutdown announcement before the health officials’ scheduled press release, even though health officials had asked politicians to wait.)
The Atlantic article stated that “Breed is concerned about the city’s large homeless population,” whom it described as “not cooperating with social-distancing practices” and “refusing to adhere to social distancing.” But given that Breed was, at that very moment, ignoring a unanimous resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors to preventatively shelter thousands of homeless people in empty hotel rooms, the question needed to be asked: Who was endangering others by “refusing to adhere to social distancing”? The Atlantic made no mention of the resolution at all.
The Deadline Comes and Goes
On April 14, two days after the glowing Atlantic article was published, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance that transformed the nonbinding resolution into official, presumably binding city law.
But progress remained slow. At the time of this writing, only 727 homeless residents have been moved into hotel rooms. All of them are classified as vulnerable, meaning they’re over sixty years old or are officially immunocompromised. In essence, the hotel rooms are being means-tested. Never mind that living on the street ages a person by twenty years and compromises their immune system to begin with.
Breed was full of excuses for not following the ordinance. “The first was that homeless people can’t self-care,” says Preston, “that people have mental illness, substance abuse issues, and you can’t just put them in a hotel.” But Preston and another supervisor, Matt Haney, ran pilot projects in their own districts, privately raising funds to relocate people from shelters to hotels, and they report that the chaos Breed’s administration promised has failed to materialize.
The supervisors’ pilot projects helped put Breed’s first excuse to bed, Preston says, but there were others. Next, Breed insisted that the city couldn’t afford the project. The supervisors pointed out that the city will be almost fully reimbursed by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) for quarantining all immunocompromised and older homeless people. Isolating everyone else is a fiscally prudent thing to do as well, says Preston: you can either pay for medical quarantine rooms down the line or nonmedical quarantine rooms up front. And, most important, if the curve is not sufficiently flattened and the virus continues to spread, the city will be locked down for longer and experience further economic contraction. So, moral arguments aside, all economic arguments eventually fall flat.
Breed also suggested that there would be nobody to staff the project. “People made very clear that all the homeless service providers were willing to staff the hotels,” says Preston. “The people who were already under contract to run the shelters were eager to do it.” In fact, Preston stressed, they would much rather work in less contagious conditions, like a hotel with partitions, than in a crowded, open-plan shelter. It would be essentially the same work, requiring the same number of people, only less dangerous. Breed used this excuse in a Medium post published the night before the deadline stipulated in the ordinance, insisting that compliance simply wasn’t feasible.
In reality, says Preston, compliance with the ordinance was hardly considered or attempted. “I can absolutely guarantee you that if the five supervisors who have been raising hell about this and our staff — which is a tiny fraction of the number of people that the mayor has at her disposal to do a program like this — I guarantee you that if we had been running the program, there would be thousands of people housed now,” he says.
“This is not rocket science. You can’t do it overnight, but you can absolutely do it in weeks.”
The Bad and the Ugly
In the past week, Breed has started to lean on a new talking point, one that has been trotted out for years by austerity politicians in San Francisco: homeless people are coming from outside the city to take advantage of freebies.
“People are showing up in San Francisco and asking where their hotel room is,” said Breed on April 30, one month after the Board of Supervisors first passed the nonbinding resolution. “During this pandemic, when resources are strained to the brink, officials said they must put their foot down,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.
If this is even happening at all, the emphasis on it is clearly artificial. “We have thousands of people in shelters and on the streets who are absolutely known to service providers to be people who’ve lived in the city a long time,” says Preston. “The majority of them were displaced from their prior home in San Francisco. That’s why they’re on the streets — because they can’t pay rent in San Francisco.”
“If the mayor had housed six thousand of the eight thousand people who need hotel rooms, and we were arguing over a few hundred others from out of town, that would be one thing,” Preston says. But as it stands, the out-of-towner line is just a common excuse politicians give when they don’t want to provide aid to the homeless. It’s meant to portray them as greedy, manipulative, and undeserving interlopers, and the city as too lenient with them. “Like I said, it’s just constant excuses,” says Preston.
Why has Breed been so recalcitrant? One homeless advocate, who chose to remain anonymous, observed that the high number of homeless people in San Francisco has long been a vexing problem and a political liability for the city’s mayors. Every mayor wants to get the number significantly down without raising taxes on business and the wealthy, the advocate said. The advocate worried that Breed might actually see a silver lining to homeless coronavirus rates and be privately weighing them against the danger of infecting other residents.
Preston is more charitable, but not by much. He speculates that one possible reason for the lack of political will is that, if the plan worked, it would be difficult to argue against some permanent version of it. It shows that the city can house the homeless if it decides to, that homelessness is not an intractable problem or an obstinate fact. “They’re afraid it would succeed. And what does that mean in the longer term? What happens if you take a homeless population of thousands and give them housing and the sky doesn’t fall?”
Whatever Breed’s motivation, her inaction is directly endangering thousands of unhoused residents. And the danger doesn’t stop at the shelter walls, or the perimeter of the tent encampment, or even the border of the city.
At the die-in on Friday, Emmett House, a staff member at the Coalition on Homelessness, took the megaphone. House, who was once homeless himself, has worked with homeless San Francisco residents for nearly two decades. “I’ve seen the good and the bad,” he said, “and this is the ugly.”