Homelessness, Hotels, and Covid-19

The following is a letter sent in response to legislation regarding the use of hotel rooms for homeless residents during the Covid-19 pandemic:

In San Francisco, we have long faced serious challenges in managing the crisis of homelessness on our streets. Every day we provide shelter and care to fifteen thousand people, whether in our permanent supportive housing units, in our Navigation Centers, or through direct outreach to those living on our streets. But we all know that isn’t enough. We have a chronic housing shortage. We have people struggling with mental health and substance use issues out on our streets. These challenges did not go away when this pandemic started, in fact it has gotten even more difficult to help people.

City staff at the Emergency Operations Center are working around the clock to protect public health, especially vulnerable populations

During this crisis, I’m incredibly proud of the work that our city workers and non-profit partners are doing every day to provide shelter and care for so many in our City, especially in this era of social distancing. Outreach workers are delivering services to people with behavioral health challenges while trying to stay six feet apart. Shelter workers are keeping people fed and safe while making sure everyone can maintain proper distancing. Janitors and cleaning crews are doing the deep cleaning necessary to help prevent the spread of this virus. Each of them is part of the many solutions we are taking on to help our most vulnerable residents through this pandemic.

One initiative we have put into action is to secure hotel rooms for our homeless residents. These rooms are especially important for those who need to self-isolate because they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, or because they’ve been exposed to the virus. In San Francisco, we have so far secured 1,536 rooms for our homeless residents and those who cannot self-isolate due to their crowded living conditions. These rooms have allowed us to move people out of our shelters to allow for social distancing, and to begin moving our most vulnerable residents off the streets. These are in addition to hundreds of additional hotel rooms we have secured for our health care workers and first responders who are taking care of everyone in our City. And every day, we are working to add more hotels.

Explaining the massive staffing and logistic undertaking that the City has undergone to move people into hotels

Operating these sites is a monumental feat. Our City workers and non-profit partners are doing something that we have never done before in such a short time. We have staff from all over our city — from Rec and Park, our Elections Department, our Libraries and so many more — stepping up to serve in these hotels as Site Monitors so guests can get food, services, and other basic needs. We have non-profit workers who are using their expertise to make sure that everyone is supported in our hotels. It is our responsibility as a City to make sure that all of our guests and workers are safe. This means having proper staffing, personal protective equipment, and safety protocols in place. I know it’s not easy, but we need to continue to do everything we can to support everyone living and working in these hotels.

That is why I cannot sign any legislation that does not acknowledge the challenges of operating these sites. I will not support a law requiring us to open thousands of rooms before we can do so safely, let alone by April 26th, which is tomorrow. I recognize the passion and advocacy behind the legislation, but our urgent actions must be paired with reality. We must work together to put forward aggressive solutions that take care of those in need and, in the age of social distancing, provide protection to those people who put themselves at risk to take care of those in need.

And let’s be clear — San Francisco is leading the way. We have received calls from all over the country about this hotel program we are building as we go. In fact, San Francisco has over 24% of the approximately 4,715 rooms available for occupancy statewide under Governor Newsom’s Project Roomkey, while only having 5% of the State’s homeless population. I want to recognize the Human Services Agency, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and everyone in our City who has helped lift these hotels up off the ground.

However, these hotel rooms are only one part of our work with the unhoused communities. We are also deploying 120 trailers and RVs that will house people, and we are working to open Safe Camping Sites to provide safe space for those who are living in tents on our streets. Working with the Salvation Army, we are delivering approximately 700 meals a day ramping up shortly to 1,400 to those living in encampments. Our staff is working tirelessly to connect thousands of people to shelters, services, and food. None of this is easy, but we will keep doing that work.

While I know our focus is on the immediate crisis, we also can’t lose sight of the long-term solutions to homelessness, which is more homes. Along with our partners, we are continuing to move people into housing. We are trying to acquire any hotels whose operators are willing to sell to the City or commit to long-term leases during these challenging economic times. That is a lasting solution that will make a real difference for the people living on our streets, beyond a short stay in a hotel room.

Throughout this public health crisis, I have been clear that with every step we take, we will focus on delivering accurate information about what we need to do to keep all of our residents safe. We aren’t out of this yet, but I’m proud of the work that everyone in San Francisco has done under guidance of the Department of Public Health to fight this pandemic. If we continue to rely on the science, data, and facts, we will get through this together. I’m incredibly proud of how our City has risen to the occasion to fight COVID-19, and I know we will emerge stronger than ever.

45th Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco

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