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SF to rent over 8,000 hotel rooms for homeless, vulnerable

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Mayor backs off of mega-shelter plan as lawmakers push to secure individual accommodations for residents

A tall building with its facade windows lit up in the shape of a heart.
Many SF hotels, like the Intercontinental San Francisco, have lit up their exterior windows in the shape of a heart.
Brock Keeling

City Hall still can’t agree about how to protect San Francisco’s homeless residents from the novel coronavirus outbreak. Now a group of lawmakers want to break the impasse with legislation that would rent more than 8,000 vacant hotel rooms to allow the bulk of the SF homeless population to shelter in place.

Supervisors Matt Haney, Dean Preston, and Hillary Ronen have agitated for the hotel plan for weeks, claiming that it’s the only way to provide significant protection for SF residents who are vulnerable—both on the streets and in the confines of traditional communal homeless shelters.

“They asked to be taken right then and there,” Ronen said at a video press conference on Tuesday, describing outreach she’s done with homeless residents whom the supervisor said “almost unanimously” expressed a desire move into the accommodations.

“Despite our pressure, nothing has been done,” said Preston, pointing out that SF Health Officer Tomas Aragon called homeless people both on the street and in shelters a particularly vulnerable population.

Several SF homeless shelters have detected cases of COVID-19 in the past week.

Two other Board of Supervisors members, Aaron Peskin and Shamann Walton, joined in the virtual press conference Tuesday to back the plan.

The legislation would secure 8,250 rooms by April 26, with 7,000 of the rooms earmarked for homeless people not currently infected with the novel coronavirus. According to the 2019 point-in-time count, SF has nearly 5,200 unsheltered homeless residents, and more than 4,000 more in various forms of emergency shelter.

The remainder of the hotel rooms would go to medical workers (many of whom must isolate away from family and friends after working with sick patients) and patients released from hospitals who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19 and thus cannot go home.

The law would also require existing group homeless shelters to enforce social distancing rules, something that the city has encouraged but not required.

The emergency legislation comes one day after Mayor London Breed abandoned a plan to house thousands of people at Moscone Center and the Palace of Fine Arts instead.

Those large facilities would have allowed residents to keep their distance from each other more easily than in the generally close confines of existing shelters. But after Street Sheet published grim-looking images of the accommodations the administration reversed course and signed on for the hotel plan instead.

Some private interests have already relocated small numbers of homeless persons into hotel facilities, including a Preston fundraiser in March.

Last week, a coalition of nine local Methodist churches raised $100,000 for hotel fees and says they moved 17 people into private rooms over the weekend, and political groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have encouraged members to pressure lawmakers and the mayor to support hotel relocation.

While Breed appears to have agreed with the proposal, there might be disagreement over the number of rooms, with estimates from Monday floating a figure of around 4,500 accommodations, rather than the 8,000-plus put forward now.

Board members will need six votes to pass the plan, but eight to overcome a potential mayoral veto.