Using some $100,000 in private funds, 17 Hospitality House residents moved into a hotel over the weekend. Photo by Sam Lew

Shelters urged to sleep residents head-to-toe, not head-to-head

San Francisco homeless shelters were yesterday given the green light to begin socially distancing their residents in any way they can without reducing the number of people dwelling within. As for proactively and systematically testing residents for symptoms of COVID-19 — that’ll have to wait.

“Conservatively, we hope to have it in place by the middle of next week,” said Emily Cohen, the Department of Homelessness’ interim director of strategy and external affairs. “It’s my hope this will be deployed this weekend and early next week.”

The “COVID- 19 screening tool” initiated on Monday at Episcopal Community Services’ Next Door shelter consists in large part of taking residents’ temperatures and asking them a series of questions from a questionnaire. While simple in concept, it’s harder in practice. Many shelters lack even thermometers, and the department only just received its most recent shipment. “We have been struggling with supplies, much like anyone else,” admits Cohen.

The questions aren’t easy, either. Many shelter-dwellers suffer from myriad underlying and pre-existing conditions; it’s often a challenge to differentiate symptoms.

Shelter operators, while understanding, were not thrilled by this timeline.

“Are they moving fast enough? I don’t think there’s such a thing as moving fast enough in this situation,” said Mary Kate Bacalao, the director of external affairs and policy for Compass Family Services and co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association.

“They’re moving as fast as they can but, practically speaking, we could be moving faster.”

Shari Wooldridge, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of San Francisco, flatly stated that “no, this isn’t fast enough. We have clients come in and out every day. But this is what we’re working with.”

The Department of Homelessness on March 23 instructed its partner shelter operators on social distancing practices — but specifically counseled them to hold off implementing these practices until given further notice.

This was jarring in a city in which everyone is working under a stay-at-home order, and shelters were yesterday instructed to institute social distancing in manners that are possible without further thinning the crowd within.

City shelters ceased accepting new would-be residents on March 23, and also ceased offering one-night beds. This was meant to curtail the spread of the virus and allow enough space within shelters to eventually institute social distancing.

Among the guidelines offered to shelters is to sleep residents head-to-toe instead of head-to-head.

“We’re trying to move the beds at least three feet apart,” said Wooldridge. “Since we’re not taking in new clients, those beds are not being filled. We’re moving them.”

The hope of several members of the Board of Supervisors to rapidly transfer homeless people from shelters and the street into vacant hotel rooms has not taken root with the mayor, Human Services Agency, or Department of Public Health. The following guidelines were issued yesterday:

Here is a summary of the City’s current plan for hotels and sheltering:

Per Dr. Colfax, the most pressing and immediate need is to ensure we have capacity in our hospitals to manage the medical surge. To this end, the City has been prioritizing bringing hotel rooms on line to allow the hospital system to discharge homeless individuals who are either COVID+ or are [persons under investigation] PUIs who are taking up beds because they do not have housing available for them to self-quarantine.

We currently have over 300 hotel rooms on line for this purpose and are currently moving people out of the hospital.

The next phase of hotel lease up will total close to 900 rooms to continue the discharge flow described above and also to target the following populations:

1) COVID negative and non-PUI vulnerable populations (age 60+ and those with underlying health conditions) in our shelter and nav center system who can self-care in hotel rooms, in order to begin to reduce the shelter census so we can provide the necessary social isolation in those congregate settings

2) Seniors and vulnerable adults in Laguna Honda Hospital and others in congregate facilities who can be in hotel rooms with a relatively low level of care

3) COVID exposed and COVID positive front-line health and other first responders

The city then hopes to house vulnerable, older street- or shelter-dwellers in small hotels or a future “Intensive Care Medical Shelter” at Moscone North.

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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