There are no villains here. Nobody wants things to be this way. 

No one is sitting behind a desk, rubbing his hands with glee, overjoyed that city directives to leave hotel rooms unoccupied are keeping San Francisco families — at least one with five kids under age five — in their cars, on the streets or in epidemiological tinderbox shelters. 

So, there are no villains here. Nobody wants things to be this way. But things are this way. This is happening. 

The mayor’s office announced this week that it would obtain up to 7,000 vacant hotel rooms for first-providers and sick or vulnerable individuals.  

But, both in writing and orally, the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has instructed homeless providers to not move families into the meager hotel rooms allotted to them — as recently as this week — so those spaces can serve as future quarantine sites. 

The direct consequence of this dictum is that homeless families, even those including sickly, elderly, or vulnerable people who meet the Department of Public Health criteria for who should be provided a hotel room, have been locked out during a pandemic. All while rooms sit empty. As a matter of policy. 

Here’s just a partial list who this effects: 

  • A family with a 12-year-old hospitalized due to suicidal ideation, forced to live in a vehicle and bathe at truck stops; 
  • A family with its head-of-household enduring a high-risk pregnancy while rooming with her elderly mother and 6-year-old son; 
  • A family with its head-of-household enduring a high-risk pregnancy while living in a car with her husband and two children under age three; 
  • A single mother and her 12-year-old son sleeping in an RV; 
  • The aforementioned mother of five kids under age five shuttling between a vehicle and a domestic violence shelter. 

Again, nobody is reveling in this. But when the city makes decisions to not proactively put vulnerable people into hotel rooms — and explicitly requests rooms be left empty until such time a person from a preferential group is placed into them — the direct policy consequence is to keep out other vulnerable people. Even some of the very people the city states should be put into hotel rooms. 

“You can’t square this,” says Joe Wilson, the executive director of the Hospitality House men’s shelter. “This is hypocritical. It’s unconscionable. It’s immoral.” 

It’s city policy.

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

 If you’re searching for a glimmer of good news on Good Friday, all of the families referenced above enduring dire situations are now in hotels through May 3, or soon will be. 

Not because of the city, but largely in spite of it. 

Those families were housed by Compass Family Services — after it repeatedly tried and failed to get money from the city to do so and was told, repeatedly, to leave its rooms empty. Rather than wait for illusory public funds, Compass has fund-raised for private money and moved proactively. 

“I am grateful for the rooms [the city] set up for us. But it’s too little, too late, and we were asked to keep them vacant,” said Mary Kate Bacalao, Compass’ director of external affairs and policy. “It’s enormously frustrating.”

Bacalao has been interacting with the Department of Homelessness. But, to be fair, the department cannot allocate rooms it hasn’t been given.

“We ration out resources because we don’t have enough,” Bacalao says. “And that leads to irrational decisions.” 

So, with private money, Compass placed several families in hotels throughout March and April. This week, the Homeless Prenatal Program and Compass landed a block of 30 rooms for unsheltered and otherwise vulnerable families. 

“It seems like families are not the priority of the day. But they are to us,” says Martha Ryan, the executive director of the Homeless Prenatal Program. “We are securing and finding hotels. We are working to put families in them. We will monitor them. We will pay.” 

Over the weekend, the vast majority of Hospitality House’s residents relocated to a Polk Street hotel, thanks in large part to a $100,000 donation from the United Methodist Church. 

Mission Local’s messages for the Department of Homelessness have not yet been returned. 

On 16th Street. Photo by Lydia Chávez

While 17 of the homeless men living in Wilson’s Hospitality House relocated to a hotel over the weekend, about half a dozen did not partake in this exodus. With so few people in the Turk Street shelter, they can now physically distance themselves. But, as the Chronicle’s Heather Knight astutely noted, there’s a more sinister reason to stay in the congregate shelters nobody ought to be staying in: Individuals who leave are not guaranteed a right of return once this pandemic subsides. 

Those are the city’s rules. These rules were not carried down from Mount Sinai, but rules are rules — and, even during a pandemic, they have not yet changed. 

And it turns out that this SNAFU influences not just individual homeless men and women, but large-scale organizations with years of experience dealing with the city. 

Compass, Hospitality House, and other providers have accepted private money to move shelter residents to hotels. But donors hoping to hand tens of thousands of dollars to other shelter providers were shocked to be turned down cold.

“Service providers are between a rock and a hard place,” says the Rev. John Kirkley, the rector at St. James Episcopal in the Richmond and a co-chair of Faith in Action Bay Area. “It’s in people’s best interest to be moved into hotels, but the risk there is, these people will lose access to the very services they need.” 

And this is a bewildering situation. Proactively housing asymptomatic, younger homeless people has been deemed not “fiscally prudent” by the city. But San Francisco’s clumsy rules are discouraging even shelters offered private money from doing this.  

Opponents of proactively housing the homeless play up the antisocial tendencies of swaths of this population; certainly an appreciable percentage of homeless people would not diligently follow health and safety rules or otherwise trash their hotel rooms. 

But San Francisco houses tens of thousands of homeless individuals in thousands of rooms every day. That’s what supportive housing is. And the city has barely scratched the surface when it comes to housing the many, many homeless people who, demonstrably, are able to self-care and are not a risk to wreak havoc on their rooms. 

Including families with children. 

“To apply a blanket assumption or presumption about people’s capacity both limits our choices and encourages inaction at a time when quick action is needed,” says Wilson “People can’t be in shelters if they can’t self-care; there’s not enough staff to provide one-on-one care for everyone who needs it. Most individuals in shelters and most folks in family living situations have to be able to care for themselves.” 

San Francisco, concludes Kirkley, has been exposed. “There never has been a plan,” the reverend says. “Deeper issues are being revealed here.” 

Even if he and others succeed and move scads of homeless people indoors, “the city will face the dilemma of, eventually, throwing 3,000 or 4,000 people back out on the street.” 

And perhaps that’s a factor in the trepidation at moving people inside. 

“This has always been a public health crisis,” Kirkley continues. “The pandemic has heightened it. But homeless people have always had their lives at risk, in so many ways.” 

Keep our coverage coming.