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SF homeless shelters told not to socially distance residents

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Six feet per person is more space than most shelters have

A tent-like interior with a peaked roof, with low beds and cubicles.
A typical SF navigation center features much closer quarters than public health directives mandate.
Photo by Adam L Brinklow

The SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) has recommended some best practices for homeless shelters and SROs in light of the COVID-19 crisis. But one bullet point that stands out is a directive not to adhere to social distancing standards.

Homeless shelters currently don’t have the capacity to offer six feet of buffer space between people. Interim HSH Director Emily Cohen told Mission Local, “We need to have fewer people in the shelters.”

The document includes the warning shelter management: “Please do not implement six feet social distancing guidance in shelters until instructed to do so by HSH.”

HSH hasn’t yet responded to queries about when they might start practicing the standard social distancing formula in shelters.

The department is still “gathering information” about alternative shelter layouts that will allow for the prescribed distance between temporary tenants, per the guidelines, which also note that distancing directives will only be implemented “once alternative shelter sites with sufficient capacity are identified.”

HSH does say that if shelter residents receive visitors—who are limited to those who “provide essential services” during the current shelter-in-place order—they should “maintain six feet distance when possible” and follow other social distancing guidelines such as eliminating or minimizing personal contact.

This issue is exactly what a five-person coalition of SF lawmakers feared when they proposed the idea this week of moving most of the city’s homeless population into vacant hotels, saying that neither the streets nor conventional shelters are healthy environments in the current citywide predicament.

Supervisor Dean Preston, one of the five supervisors, says that two shelters from his district have already moved into hotels, financed by private donations covering the cost of renting rooms for dozens of people. (There’s a Go Fund Me for those interested in donating.)

Patricia Doyle, director of Providence Foundation, which manages the shelters, says via email, “We are doing our best, but it breaks my heart to see people put at risk” in potentially crowded conventional shelter environments.

Other guidelines from the HSH include instructions that “family shelters should extend stays for all guests” and that other sorts of shelters should conditionally extend stays as often as possible.

Starting this week, city agencies will employ a pilot program to screen for possible COVID-19 infections in shelter populations. Shelter management are also instructed how to keep common areas properly clean and sanitary.