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

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 of 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.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. I was on vacation in Cuba for 3 weeks in February. My wife has a good grasp of Spanish and as we needed an explanation for the lack of beggars, homelessness and the fact that elderly people can walk the streets late at night without getting mugged we asked the locals. The concensus was that the Cuban government in 1959 promised to ensure that all citizens 1) would have a house of their own. 2) Get free education up to post secondary level. 3) Get free medical care. During our walks in 4 cities we found that the schools and the hospitals were the best built buildings in each city. In Cienfuegos we stayed in an apartment across the street from the hospital which was being extended by about 1/3rd. The emergency dept. was served by ambulances and walk in patients 24/7. The only line up was at the pharmacy from about 9 to 11 a.m. each morning. We got lost one night between 10 and 11 p.m. about 2-3 miles from our apartment the locals we were talking to phoned the police who drove us to the apartment. My wife thanked the locals profusely who responded it was their pleasure we Cubans help each other. I am Irish and my wife is German, we live in Canada, there is homelessness in Europe and Canada but nothing on the scale that exists in the USA. Violent crime is usually the last resort of people who are without shelter, food or clothing and might explain why the USA has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Ronald Reagan switched the exceptionalism escalator from up to down during his tenure in the WH. Some day it will be reversed but not as a result of the 2020 election which looks like it will be a continuation of business as usual.

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  2. Wow aren’t you a little judgmental about homeless people did you ever think that some of us actually are educated can read the paper and can respond to idiots like you its judgemental assholes like you that make this world a terrible place to live in. every person has their story every person has made their mistakes who the fuck are you to pass judgement

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  3. Though there isn’t enough capacity to provide permanent appropriately supportive housing for people currently homeless, I’m more concerned about how many people in SF(and elsewhere) will become homeless due to this crisis. There certainty will be some, maybe a lot.

    Every disaster has associated financial disruptions that ultimately impoverish some people. Of course, people already in marginal financial condition or who the crisis directly harms will most likely be newly impoverished. Some of the newly impoverished will become destitute and homeless. A portion will become chronically homeless. It won’t happen all at once. It won’t be obvious how to connect the dots so the public will have forgotten and decide being homeless is their fault.

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    1. Interesting. I’d say you just described the situation for the overwhelming majority of the current swath of homeless populating our streets. Rarely can you ever “connect the dots” that lead to large-scale homelessness like we’ve seen in recent years, not unless you zoom in to focus on each individual case. The fact is that once a person becomes homeless, people really stop caring how he got there. You expressed this yourself by stating you were “more concerned“ about those who may soon face homelessness due to the pandemic. I can assure you that once these people actually are living on the street, your concern will quickly fade.

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  4. Breed and her posse are responsible for this tragic situation period. Take note everyone. She talks a good talk but that’s all it is. Shame on her and her people.

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    1. Breed is a hero for sheltering in place before any other city in the nation. It’s not her fault that irresponsible people plague this city like locusts. The narrative that everyone, but the actual people themselves, are responsible for their messed up lives is toxic and unsustainable. As well as impossible and self defeating. Billions and decades have been invested in this road to hell paved with “good” (they ceased being good years ago and now are just flat out stupid) intentions.

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      1. This issue is hyper-polarazing. You read the comments on these blogs and they are asking why Breed hasn’t been arrested for not providing a social net for everyone living in the city. And I’m sure that she wishes that she could. But people like Clyde wonder about the horrible personal decisions made by individuals that we are now being held accountable for.

        On the other hand, the example in this article about the family with five children under age 5….perhaps they could have decided to consult with Planned Parenthood after the 3rd kid in 3 years.

        We’re trying. But there are patterns of disastrous personal decisions that make it next to impossible to cover them along with the vast numbers of others who need help.

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  5. Communalize every single private hotel. Do not ask permission. Take it and house these people immediately.

    Corporate profit be damned, we’re talking about lives here. Theirs, and everyone else’s if this lack of action causes a resurgent second wave.

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