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SF lawmakers want to move homeless population into hotels

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Shelters aren’t safe during outbreak, supervisors argue, eyeing SF’s 33,000 empty hotel units

A giant red letter W attached to the side of a building.
The W hotel has recently shuttered for lack of paying guests. No word yet exactly which hotels would be earmarked for sheltering the homeless.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Imagine trying to do social distancing in a homeless shelter,” said Supervisor Dean Preston, who, along with four other city lawmakers, want to move homeless people into vacant hotel rooms for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Preston, along with Supervisors Matt Haney, Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen, and Shamann Walton, will introduce a resolution at today’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting what will prioritize hotel rooms for the homeless, especially vulnerable people ages 60 and over.

San Francisco has tens of thousands of empty hotel rooms now, perhaps as many as 33,000 by the supervisors’ estimation. The lawmakers say that so far hospitality establishments have offered approximately 8,500 units to rent for the city’s plan to temporarily house the homeless. That’s roughly equivalent to official estimates of the city’s homeless population.

The lawmakers argued that leaving a large number of people on the streets or in shelters poses too costly of a health risk. Placing homeless denizens inside hotel rooms would free up space inside shelters and navigation centers, which could, in turn, help create six-foot buffers inside the typically crowded spaces.

“We need to find private rooms for these folks in order to thin out the shelter program so people can keep a safe distance,” said Dean during a virtual press conference on Monday about resolution.

Haney added, “Individuals in individual hotel rooms is the solution.”

City Hall had intended to use hotel rooms and rented recreation vehicles as quarantine space for homeless people and SRO residents diagnosed with COVID-19. The lawmakers say that’s no longer enough.

Supervisor Ronen also proposed that rooms should go to first responders who need isolation space away from families, and other patients quarantined in hospitals who could be moved to make room for new cases.

In all, the number of rooms needed could be as much as 12,000.

Cost estimates are not yet clear. But Haney argues that the cost in a public health crisis if people are left to potentially contract—and spread—the novel coronavirus elsewhere is greater.

“The cost of treating people who contract the virus will be much greater than giving folks a hotel room,” said Haney. “It’s not like we’re saving money by taking the riskier approach. We may save money by being more proactive and preventative.”

Bay Area Reporter noted that at a separate press conference, Mayor London Breed provided a somewhat noncommittal answer when asked about the hotel plan, saying, “We need more of everything” to address the crisis and pointing out the many complications involved in securing thousands of accommodations.

In a different City Hall bid to find new solutions for vulnerable populations, Preston last week pushed for the developers behind 555 Fulton, the scandal-plagued, unfinished Hayes Valley mixed-use complex under construction for nearly six years, to license its completed but vacant condos as emergency shelter.

“We believe any and all vacant units should be looked at by the city for temporary occupancy,” Preston said in a statement last week. Nobody at Fulton Street Ventures, an extension of Chinese mega-developer R&F Properties, has commented on the request.