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SF halts homeless shelter admissions over COVID-19

Health crisis “compounding scarcity” as city struggles to find places to put everybody

Four silhouettes of people standing in the middle of an almost entirely empty room, looking out a row of windows that make up one entire wall.
The site of the city’s homeless navigation center for teenagers and other young people in January.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As San Francisco grapples with how to protect thousands of homeless residents from the spread of COVID-19, the city has told shelters to stop admitting new people in an effort to allow for more social distancing in close confines.

The decision to stop new admissions is aimed at making the sanctuaries safer and healthier for residents. In an effort to free up space at the homeless lodgings and navigation centers, the mayor’s office announced the opening of a new shelter at Moscone West, which will house people from other shelters elsewhere in order to free up space.

“We’re going to use Moscone West as a place to thin out our shelters,” Mayor London Breed told CBS SF.

SF’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) has told shelter managers to distance residents to the best of their ability, reversing a contrary advisory from last week. Asked why that was not the instruction for shelters all along, HSH spokesperson Emily Cohen tells Curbed SF that the city was worried about losing capacity at shelters. With a freeze on new admissions, that’s no longer an issue—although it means turning away people on the streets.

Defending the decision to freeze intakes, Cohen says that even at during regular times, the shelter system doesn’t have room for all of SF’s unsheltered residents.

“This public health crisis on top of the existing public health crisis of homelessness is compounding that scarcity,” she says.

Meanwhile, the close quarters in shelters, where hundreds of people live, eat, and sleep communally, creates an untenable scenario for managing the potential spread of a contagion that transmits via close contact.

Under current city guidelines, simple measures like keeping people six feet apart or having tenants in communal sleeping areas to lay head-to-foot with bedmates aim to take the edge off some of the risks. Shelters will also begin taking residents’ temperatures daily to watch for signs of potential infection.

The Center For Disease Control (CDC) recommends homeless shelters “minimize the number of staff members who have face-to-face interactions with clients with respiratory symptoms” and keep people showing symptoms to individual rooms “if possible.”

However, the CDC also says that sick people may show no symptoms for up to 14 days, during which time contagion could spread through the crowded confines of a shelter undetected.

Currently, there are no detected cases of the novel coronavirus at SF homeless shelters.

A coalition of SF supervisors are pushing to move the most of the homeless population into disused hotel rooms, which would solve the problem of both inadequate social distancing and scarcity of space, if they can overcome logistics and funding challenges.

Mayor London Breed’s office says that hoteliers may make up to 11,000 rooms available for such use, but the city will prioritize “vulnerable populations who are living unsheltered on the street,” as well as patients who can be moved from Laguna Honda Hospital healthcare workers who have to isolate from family members.

Moving others, either out of group shelters or off the streets, will take longer.