SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The coronavirus crisis is beginning to do something the city of San Francisco has been unable to accomplish for years - move homeless people off the streets and into shelters, including some of the city’s now-empty hotels.
Faced with the prospect the virus could rip through the nearly 10,000 people who live on the streets or in shelters, city officials are securing 4,500 rooms for those who need to self-quarantine. The rooms would also be for homeless residents who need to isolate themselves and cannot be sent back into the community without risking infecting others.
The hotels may additionally house high-risk individuals among the 19,000 people living in single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings with shared kitchens and bathrooms who similarly cannot self-isolate.
At least 160 people who either tested positive for the coronavirus or were awaiting results were being referred to hotels as of March 25, city officials said.
“The hospitals will not discharge them to the street,” said Trent Rhorer, executive director of the city’s Human Services Agency. “They’ll only discharge people who are able to self-quarantine.”
Progressive San Francisco lawmakers want to triple the number of rooms to 14,000, enough to shelter all of the homeless and some additional people from the SRO buildings.
On Thursday, lawmakers said the first known case of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, had been confirmed in a homeless shelter and reiterated their demand to put residents into private rooms.
Stringent stay-at-home orders have greatly reduced travel, leaving the city’s hotels nearly empty. The hotel industry has asked city leaders how housing the homeless would work, including issues on potential property damage and whether California laws could give homeless guests tenancy rights after 30-day stays.
A move to hotels may be the most aggressive intervention in years to address homelessness in the liberal-leaning Bay Area. Between 2015 and 2019, the homeless population in San Francisco grew nearly 30%, according to city figures.
In San Francisco’s central Tenderloin neighborhood, tent encampments still lined the streets after city officials issued stay-home orders on starting March 17.
On a recent evening shortly before 10:30 p.m., Tenderloin firefighters and police clad in protective masks knelt over one man, administering naloxone nasal spray to treat an overdose. The sixth of the night, officers said.
“People are supposed to stay in, but I don’t see how that’s possible when there’s a lot of us around,” Jackie Cismowski, 28, who has been homeless off-and-on since 2012, said as she walked in the Tenderloin wearing rubber gloves and an N95 mask.
To give the homeless more room to spread out, city officials are converting an upscale tennis club in the South of Market neighborhood and part of the Moscone Center, a venue for glitzy technology conferences, into shelter facilities.
About 60% of 50 hotels that met with the city about housing the homeless and first responders signed up for the city’s program within days of its announcement, said Kevin Carroll, president and chief executive of the Hotel Council of San Francisco.
City officials said San Francisco already has 1,055 rooms under contract, but declined to release the names of hotels in the program, saying that doing so could violate health privacy laws and stigmatize the properties.
Anand Singh, president of United Here Local 2, the union that represents more than 14,000 San Francisco hospitality workers, said he knew of two local budget hotels near the Tenderloin that have signed on to take quarantine guests.
Singh said the city is providing training and protective gear for union cleaners at the hotels.
“You could end up in a situation where these crucial facilities ... that are intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 could instead lead to outbreak clusters,” Singh said.
Louis Charles Brown, 51, who lives in a building with shared bathrooms in the Tenderloin, paced the streets recently, trying to warn his neighbors about COVID-19.
“This will kill you and it ain’t a joke,” Brown said. “They need to open up a church, quarantine and do something, because they say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Reporting by Nathan Frandino, Shannon Stapleton, Katie Paul and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler