Homeless shelter operators plead with city for expanded screening — and provide protocol regarding what to do about positive COVID-19 test in shelter


San Francisco homeless shelter operators — some of which do not have any thermometers on hand — have demanded the Department of Homelessness speed up its “pilot program” for systematically screening homeless people for COVID-19 symptoms. 

That program debuted on Monday at a single homeless shelter. 

“We simply do not have time for a single-site pilot to ‘perfect the implementation of the screening tool,’” reads a letter sent to the Department of Homelessness yesterday by the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association (HESPA), a consortium of homeless service operators. 

“We need to roll out what we have to the entire system now and adjust it as we go.” 

Several shelter operators admitted to Mission Local that they do not have basic supplies to be used in screenings, such as thermometers, and are lacking personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. 

Details regarding the “COVID- 19 screening tool,” initiated on Monday at Episcopal Community Services’ Next Door shelter are not included in Department of Homelessness communiques to service providers. Our calls to the department have not yet been returned. 

“We need system-wide coordination. We do need to be screening but we don’t have a protocol yet,” said Mark Kate Bacalao, the director of external affairs and policy for Compass Family Services and co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association. 

“The idea is, we should be identifying people who are symptomatic and work to contact healthcare providers.” But, Bacalao continues, hers is one of the shelters without even thermometers on hand: “Our shipment was delayed. We had disposable ones, but, of course, we dispose of them after use.” 

Photo by Mimi Chakarova.

Joe Wilson, the executive director of Hospitality House, a 25-bed shelter on Turk Street, concurred that “we are getting very limited guidance” on screening protocols. Going back some two weeks, the daily briefs sent by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to its nonprofit partners do not include any references to “thermometers,” “fever,” or “temperature.” 

Wilson, also a HESPA co-chair, recently bought several touchless thermometers he chanced upon at the Stonestown shopping center. “We want to be able to at least check temperatures on a limited basis,” he said. “We want some degree of comfort that, frankly, we are not promoting an incubator in our shelter environment.” 

Disturbingly, yesterday’s HESPA letter to the Department of Homelessness also pleaded for “a response protocol for when screened shelter guests show symptoms and/or test positive for COVID-19, particularly in congregate shelters.” 

City officials had assured Mission Local last week that such a protocol exists. But it has, apparently, not made its way to the homeless shelter operators who would be responsible for enacting it. 

“Will the shelter be quarantined and when? Who will staff a quarantined shelter? Will symptomatic/positive shelter guests be moved (what about high-risk guests)?” continues the letter. “If so, how will shelters be utilized? How will the protocols be communicated to those most impacted by them, including shelter staff and guests?”

Off 16th Street. March 23, 2020. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Increasing angst over COVID-19 in city homeless shelters comes in the midst of a brewing clash over what to do with the city’s most vulnerable residents. Empty hotels over the weekend offered some 8,500 rooms to the city at varying rates, a number that is apparently growing by the day. 

But while some members of the Board of Supervisors — and HESPA — want to proactively put homeless people into these rooms, the mayor and Human Services Agency have prioritized sick and exposed people, front-line workers, and other groups, an approach homeless advocates criticize as reactionary. 

In the meantime, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston himself raised funds to place 30 homeless people into the Oasis Inn on Franklin Street, putting $10,000 of his own money into the effort.

Mission Local reported yesterday that the city, in an attempt to limit COVID-19 in shelters, on Monday barred new would-be residents from entering. Shelters were also told to hold off on social distancing practices within until given the go-ahead by the Department of Homelessness.  

“We are waiting on the process to do the screening,” said Shari Wooldridge, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of San Francisco. “We have requested thermometers. We haven’t received them yet. If you know a place we could buy some, that’d be helpful.” 

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