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Homeless man asked to relocate to Moscone describes it as ‘The blank template of a nightmare. Everything that can go wrong, will.

Update: Amid outcry, city pulls plug on plans to use Moscone West, Palace of Fine Arts as massive COVID-19 homeless shelters. See end.

The residents of Hospitality House on Turk Street on Saturday became the first shelter to relocate en masse to a vacant private hotel. This was a move spearheaded by Supervisor Matt Haney, and aided by a $100,000 donation from the United Methodist Church. 

“Supervisor Haney’s office approached us and asked us what it would take, if it were possible, to move folks from our congregate shelter into hotel rooms,” said Hospitality House executive director Joe Wilson. 

That was early last week. By Saturday afternoon, 17 Hospitality House residents were ensconced in a vacant Polk Street hotel, with six still at the shelter, able to physically distance. 

“The city has been moving more slowly than we could be patient with. We were given an opportunity and we took it,” Wilson continued. “There was no time to waste.” 

He noted the positive COVID-19 tests over the weekend at MSC South, the city’s largest shelter. “This is a ticking time bomb. We cannot wait until it explodes.” 

Hospitality House’s exodus comes on the heels of Supervisor Dean Preston’s push last week to move 39 people out of shelters and into the vacant Oasis Motel — a fund-raising effort to which he committed $10,000 personally.

“Hospitality House’s guests were especially scared after the news of the positive COVID-19 test at the Division Circle Navigation Center,” said Haney. “There are willing partners — service providers, funders, and hotels. This can be done quickly. This is a group of people who are much safer now.” 

This photo, purportedly of the 394-bed emergency shelter at Moscone West, has been met with some degree of alarm and unease. Photo courtesy of Street Sheet.

A majority of the Board of Supervisors is advocating the proactive relocation of the city’s vulnerable homeless population to the city’s vast supply of empty hotel rooms; a resolution in essence calling for this last week passed unanimously.

On Tuesday, the Board will introduce an emergency ordinance requiring at least 1,000 rooms be procured for unhoused people in congregate settings such as shelters and mandating the city lease some 14,000 rooms by April 28. 

This legislation figures to meet with pushback from the mayor’s office, which has resisted proactively housing vulnerable, non-infected homeless people. 

“The City will NOT be renting hotel rooms to house to unsheltered homeless who fall out of the ‘vulnerable’ definition (those who are non-COVID or under age 60 or who do not have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the COVID virus),” wrote Human Services Agency Trent Rhorer in an email to the editor of the Street Sheet newspaper. 

“According to the City’s Department of Public Health, there is no medical need to isolate this population in hotel rooms and doing so could potentially crowd out hotel rooms that are necessary for our hospitals and health care system to manage the anticipated medical surge and for homeless individuals who meet the ‘vulnerable’ definition. … It would not be fiscally prudent to spend City General Fund (sic) on renting thousands of hotel rooms for a population that does not require an urgent COVID health quarantine or isolation intervention.”

Tuesday’s emergency ordinance could lead to a high-stakes game of budget chicken. While the supervisors have the authority to pass legislation and allocate funds, it is within the mayor’s purview to not spend those funds. 

On 16th Street. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Street Sheet over the weekend published purported photos of the 394-bed emergency shelter at the cavernous Moscone West center. Mission Local has queried multiple city government officials as to whether the open layout depicted in the photos is the final setup, or if barriers of some sort will be put in place. Our messages have not been returned.

Homeless service providers who viewed the photos at Mission Local’s behest were taken aback. “Very bad,” said one. “It’s one thing to stay six feet away as you walk by on the street. It’s another to sleep hundreds together.

Adds another, “who wants to sleep on a goddamn mat on the floor?”

Haney says the Community Forward homeless women’s shelter refused space offered to it in Moscone out of COVID-19-related safety concerns. He is fundraising to place its 37 residents in a hotel in short order. “They have too many people there now,” he said regarding the Community Forward shelter. “Some are sleeping in chairs.” 

“People have been led to believe that San Francisco is ahead of the curve and leading the way,” Haney continued. “And, in many ways, we have been. But the people of San Francisco should know that what we’re doing with respect to our homeless population is grossly inadequate.”

Keith Crouse, a resident at the The Sanctuary, has been told he and his fellow shelter-dwellers may soon be relocated to Moscone — and he is scared. 

“The photo of Moscone is the blank template of a nightmare,” he says. “Everything that can go wrong, will. On the cold floor, EVERYONE is your neighbor, it’s open season on your stuff, and a five-minute walk upstairs both ways to the bathroom.” 

“Underneath it all is the baseline inadequacy of all social services, which is a real tragedy, because they really do the best they can with limited resources.” 

Crouse said that “very polite and well-meaning” recruiters dropped by his shelter today asking for volunteers to relocate to Moscone. They didn’t find many: “the Street Sheet article got to everybody.”

Hospitality House’s Wilson says that, if offered space there for his shelter residents, he would’ve turned it down. 

“The remedy for large congregate settings cannot be an even larger congregate setting,” he said. “We have to do better than that.”

“Every moment we squander, the crisis worsens,” he continued. “To use another metaphor, we have to get the healthy people off the ship, now.”

Update, 4:40 p.m.: The city has, abruptly, reversed course and stated that it will not shuttle homeless people into the hangar-sized Moscone West and instead procure more hotel rooms.

A planned 162-person shelter at the Palace of Fine arts has also been nixed, some 24 hours after it was announced.

“Imagine the whiplash of someone running a shelter — or living in one — being told you’re going to Moscone one day and, the next day you’re not,” said Supervisor Matt Haney.

Still, “it’s definitely a good move not to use Moscone as a massive holding place.”

Haney is frustrated, though.

“They have committed to nothing for people on the streets. Nothing. All we want is people who can be in hotel rooms and can self-care to have that access right away. People who cannot, should be in congregate settings where they can have high services but adequate social distancing. They have not done any of that.”

Keith Crouse, still at Sanctuary, said he’s relieved he won’t be relocated to Moscone. 

“We were all talking about solidly not going if they tried to force us. It’s just such a terrible idea,” he said. “They can’t just crowd a bunch of people in. We have been respecting social distancing as much as we can. This is the best shelter in the city. Everyone knows it. I can’t imagine people who are new to managing a homeless shelter were going to put a bunch of guys on the floor and hope for the best. There would’ve been so many conflicts.”

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