City Hall and its environs, April 17, 2020.

As of Monday, San Francisco had placed 621 people in shelter-in-place rooms in city hotels. This, it would appear, is the extent of vulnerable, likely homeless people who have been proactively placed in rooms before being sickened by COVID-19 or awaiting a diagnosis. 

That’s a lot of people. But not in the context of the crisis we’re in, and not in the context of the weeks of agitation to take people off the streets and get them in hotels — before they get sick, and get everyone else sick. 

What’s more, it’s a good bet most of these 621* people aren’t from the streets but have been plucked from the shelter system. If you were homeless on the street before, you all but certainly are now — in the midst of a pandemic and with the shelters shut to new residents since late March.  

On April 14, the Board of Supervisors passed emergency legislation mandating, by an 11-0 vote, that the city by April 26 obtain 8,250 hotel rooms, with 7,000 earmarked for the homeless. 

As of April 27, the city had obtained 2,741 hotel rooms. Of these, 1,130 were sitting empty. 

Mayor London Breed has shown little interest in proactively placing vulnerable and/or homeless people in hotel rooms before they get sick and spread the disease. That was never her plan, regardless of what all 11 supervisors wanted, and, to her credit, she’s been very candid about this.  

And … that’s okay. Whether it’s okay morally and okay as a competent expression of government functioning is one thing. But legally? That’s okay. 

It comes as an apparent surprise to some members of our Board, but the mayor was not bound to implement this law — regardless of whether all 11 supes voted for it, regardless of whether Christ descended from Heaven and cast a 12th vote. 

At Mission Local, we’ve been noting this all along. The term “veto-proof majority” was irrelevant here, because the mayor of San Francisco is not bound to spend the money underlying this legislation — and not just this legislation — regardless of how many legislators voted for it. 

This has long been the case. Willie Brown did this. Gavin Newsom did this (your humble narrator first used the line about Christ descending from heaven to describe Newsom doing this a decade and change ago; for good or ill, Christ did not descend in the interregnum nor opt to vote on any legislation). 

Our supes are going to agitate about this at around noon today. They’re upset, and it’s not hard to understand why. But regardless of anyone’s feelings on leaving homeless people out on the streets in plague times — because housing them would be hardwe have not reached some manner of Constitutional crisis here. London Breed is not going to put on a jaunty white military uniform and declare herself Mayor for Life. The police or national guard are not going to be summoned because our chief executive is failing to follow the law. 

It’s not unheard of for departments to fail to enact city ordinances because of budgetary or logistical reasons. Nobody has yet suggested frog-marching those department heads to jail (though some may be headed there for other reasons — and that right soon).  

So, that’s where we are. The Board wants something, the mayor does not, and in San Francisco we have a “strong mayor system.” Occasionally, even other members of our government apparently need to be reminded just how strong the city charter empowers our mayor to be. 

We wrote it last year, before all of this, but it’s still true: 

There are youngish public-policy-school grads wearing Allbirds to work who have more input and influence on the city’s budget than any elected supervisor. They work for Mayor Breed. So do our city’s department heads. 

“When you control the budget, you ultimately control the policy outcomes,” says a longtime City Hall insider. “The two are related to each other.” 

Reasonable people can argue about whether it was good for Mayor London Breed to blow off legislation mandating the city obtain 8,250 hotel rooms — but it was within her rights to do so. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

City workers tell me that they may (emphasis on “may”) be able to start moving some 3,000 unhoused people into hotels, at perhaps 300 a week. There are plans for physically distanced tent encampments in the ether — both sanctioned and unsanctioned

If you add it all up, perhaps 3,500 or more people could, eventually, be sheltered this way. But that still leaves a lot of people outside, and a lot of people waiting for the promise of elusive housing. And this city has proven that you most certainly can’t house people in government officials’ promises. 

Meanwhile, with the shelters locked, swaths of the city have descended into shanty town conditions. Sooner or later, a city that purports to be curbing the spread of COVID-19 will have to address this, particularly in the Tenderloin — where tents have been pitched side-by-side on the pavement and drug sales are still plain to see. 

The rationales Breed has posited for not putting vulnerable homeless people into hotels, however, aren’t outlandish. It’d be expensive, and this is a city about to face its most dire budget season since the Hoover administration; there are security issues in hotels where staff cannot see what you’re doing in remote corners of upper floors (let alone whether you’re keeping physically distant); and city workers repurposed from the library or Muni to work in hotels may not be so keen to work with sickly homeless people and may simply go on leave. 

These are not insignificant obstacles. They’re certainly sufficient to prevent the timely enactment of legislation the mayor had no desire to enact. 

Finally, left unsaid by either the mayor or homeless advocates is that moving thousands of people inside will, in the days and weeks after the pandemic, likely necessitate moving thousands of people outsideperhaps by force.

And nobody wants to see that

The Americania Hotel at 121 7th St. is one of 19 hotels (as of April 27) the city has under contract. Tripadvisor rates vary from $75 a night to more than $300 a night. Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

The March 17 shelter-in-place order issued by seven health officers in six counties has prevented the Bay Area from descending into chaotic conditions like those on the East Coast or even within this state in Los Angeles. 

We should be thankful they did so. We should be thankful that Bay Area mayors like Breed have gotten behind that order and pushed hard. 

But neither the health officers’ order nor subsequent moves from this and other Bay Area cities have really taken the needs of our least fortunate into account. It’s hard to shelter-in-place when you have no shelter and have no place. 

With their legislation disregarded, the Board can either find ways to work with a mayor who may or may not have any interest in doing so, or engage in legislative guerrilla warfare to extract their desires. This may not play well in a pandemic — politically or otherwise. 

And, all the while, people remain on the street, suffering. The front-line city workers charged with helping them feel like they’re caught in a crossfire.  

“What this has exposed,” says one, “is that we have not come together as a body politic to address the issues we have.” For workers like this one, “there is a sense of paralysis. Nobody wants to step on a landmine. I wish they’d all just get on a Zoom call and work things out.” 

*The April 27 Hotel and Congregate Sites Daily Update Report lists 880 people from “vulnerable populations.” Of these, 259 are in quarantine rooms — indicating a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, or the awaiting of a test result. The remaining 621 are sheltering-in-place. 

***

Keep Mission Local’s reporters on the story.

  

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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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27 Comments

  1. The question for Mayor Breed should be: If you were living on the streets at this time, what would you want to happen?

    1. She would probably prefer to stay on the street trading drugs for stolen bikes like more of our Tenderloin homeless. If she was part of the chronically homeless wharf scene, she would be too mentally ill to know the difference. If she was one of our many homeless car dwellers carrying a full time job she would probably be pissed that this NIMBY city continues to block affordable housing.

      1. I think you valuable contribution, Juan, is identifying that there are various kinds of homeless people with a variety of underlying problems which need a variety of solutions. Of your list, I’m sure the car dwellers could appreciate and responsibility, without oversight, occupy a hotel room during the pandemic. Unfortunately, for that population, there are no state and federal matching funds for putting them up in a hotel.

    2. I am a non-profit front line outreach worker who goes into homeless camps. The amount of camps popping up due to the fear of individuals contracting COVID-19 in shelters is scary. The fact that my city, Indianapolis has hotels that are closing down and budget surpluses with our tax dollars is ridiculous. I wish the city council had attempted to pass something similar, instead of further making homelessness a misdemeanor crime

    3. Outside of staffing, the homeless actually need to want to go there. Many homeless on the street don’t want to go to shelter due to rules about curfew and drugs. They prefer thier freedom. I imagine that’s the same with these hotels. I do know most of the shelter people have been moved. But those not desiring shelter can’t be forced. Also, the hotels have to want to do that. We can’t just take over private property without due process,. Then if a hotel wants to, it has to meet the specifics of the need such as security and medical care, and also there is the insurance and contracts. I think very much the mayor is trying to get this done, but there are a ton of real world obstacles you can’t just wave a magic wand to correct. Also, if these protesters are so concerned, why are they not volunteering to help at these sites or do outreach? Because they have no clue.

    1. There isn’t a politico alive more lucky than London Breed with regard to COVID-19 sweeping in and washing their ethical problems away. A few weeks before the virus hits – people were agitating for her resignation. Now her approval ratings are likely through the roof and she has a fancy The Atlantic article to glossily mail fawning (and incorrect) quotes to registered voters ahead of the off-Presidential cycle/low-turnout mayoral election of 2023 also known as the battle for Willie Lewis Brown Jr.’s EIGHTH CONSECUTIVE TERM AS MAYOR.

      This town, man….this town.

  2. Hmmm,

    So, the City is paying over $200,000 a day for empty rooms?

    The Board has leverage.

    Same leverage the Class of 2000 used on London’t mentor, Willie Brown.

    You think we have a “strong mayor’ system?

    Willie had a much stronger range of powers.

    Until he treated the ‘Super Majority’ Progressive BOS as London is now doing.

    They went to the voters to rein him in and he lost what?

    He lost 40% of his appointment powers for:

    The Elections Commission.

    The Planning Commission.

    The Board of Appeals.

    The Police Commission.

    Building Commission.

    Others that I forget.

    Oh, they have power, sirs and ladies.

    If they can gather the backbone to use it.

    I’m suggesting they go back to the voters at the
    next election and take more power from Mayor Breed.

    I’d start with making the Police Chief an elected position.

    Get a person in there who doesn’t have to be a lackey
    for the Mayor and/or the POA.

    Great idea?

    Not mine.

    Retired (after 32 years) Sheriff Michael Hennessey’s idea.

    Other powerful spots the BOS might want to have
    some power over thru a Charter change?

    Well, there’s City Administrator who oversees a raft
    of agencies from the Department of Elections to …?

    Forgive my being redundant.

    I’ve been preaching this for 20 years.

    Here’s another thing I’ve been pushing since the Clintons.

    NFL should adopt the South Carolina high schools’ Jamboree football game system.

    Back in Anderson County we had 8 schools.

    Opening night we had a game featuring all 8.

    Uh huh, every team played in one game.

    2 teams per quarter.

    You got to see every team in the league.

    And, their bands.

    NFL has 32 teams, so imagine this …

    Ease back onto your couch with a good beer and whatever
    else tickles your fancy and watch …

    10 am … San Francisco vs. Kansas City (first quarter)

    New England vs. New Orleans (second quarter)

    Baltimore vs. Green Bay (third quarter)

    Seattle vs. Rams (4th quarter)

    1pm … Tampa Bay vs. Miami (1st quarter)

    And, on and on.

    You get the idea?

    You get to see 24 teams in one day.

    The other 8 on Monday night football.

    Next week do the same thing.

    Pre-season is shortened to 2 weeks (it was always too long).

    Each team only risks their players a total of 2 quarters.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  3. Thank you Mayor. Massive inefficient waste of spending adverted. Our COVID numbers are stabilizing, we have reserves within the hospital to handle the inevitable resurges that likely will occur sporadically until an effective vaccine hits the market.

    Let them in the tents for now. Augment our program to ship the homeless back to wherever the fuck they crawled out of. Prioritize spending for our working homeless (plenty there, just looks at all those living out of cars and RVs)

    Have treated this population for too long to know the Bozo sups plan would be a complete failure.

    B.R. MD

    1. Hi Doctor Brian. And also Juan.

      You’ve been posting under multiple names.

      Sock puppeting is not allowed on this site.

      Bye now.

      JE

      1. But bottom of the barrel socialism and mediocre journalism is acceptable? Or defending paranoid left wingers? Easy Joey boy.

        1. Still you, doctor/Juan/Bill.

          You’re not fooling anyone.

          I don’t agree with your diagnosis, doc. And if you want to shitpost about homeless people, find another site.

          Bye dude,

          JE

          1. Jake —

            If I had time to do that it would indicate I have too much time.

            I can’t say I always agree with your commentary, but I appreciate your readership and that you’re not trying to bamboozle people via sock-puppeting.

            Sock puppeting won’t be tolerated. When we discover someone has been engaging in it, we will cut them off.

            JE

    2. I’m in Concord. A lot of people here think some of our local homeless population came from San Francisco. Are you okay with their being shipped back to where they came from?

  4. Why would the hotels want their properties converted into drug infested homeless shelters that also risk severe damage, bedbugs, etc.

    1. Hi Nick.

      Because they chose to participate in the city’s bidding process, and the RFP doesn’t allow the hotels to choose who the tenants will be.

      Also, because the alternative is sitting empty for months, at the very least, and earning no money.

      That sound about right?

      JE

  5. Pros:
    + Hotels need clients, at least right now due to shelter in place (SIP) and general collapse of travel
    + Homeless need shelter
    + Reduces COVID-19 transmission rates on the streets

    Cons:
    – Hotels effectively become unstaffed/unmonitored shelters given SIP. Who enforces SIP?
    – Is a hotel fully occupied by homeless really any safer for them? See nursing home facilities that have had breakouts due to lack of control.
    – COVID-19 hasn’t hit Bay Area hard, so need is a little questionable (yet, maybe strike this)
    – What happens when SIP is lifted? Evict homeless back to the streets? I believe coalition for the homeless & Ronen would be arguing for extensions forever.

    If I’m sitting in Breed’s chair, those Cons look tough to me. Lot of PR landmines.

  6. Joe, I’m following your threads that the Mayor doesn’t have to spend the money underlying the legislation but you fail to provide one citation of law that authorizes any Mayor to do that. If I missed it somewhere please make it clear by citing section and paragraph.

    The purpose of the veto-proof vote is to compel the Mayor to carry out the wishes of the Board as representative of the People. This is balancing test of democracy.

    Section 2.107 EMERGENCY ORDINANCES. of the SF Charter states:
    “An emergency ordinance shall be effective upon passage and shall automatically terminate on the 61st day following passage. An emergency ordinance may be reenacted upon the same terms and conditions applicable to its initial enactment. **Any appropriation contained in an emergency ordinance shall be deemed to be an amendment to the final appropriations ordinance.**”

    “Any appropriation contained in an emergency ordinance…” Appropriation means expense from the budget, money.

    I don’t find anywhere in the Charter giving authority for the Mayor to decline or defy an ordinance of the Board of Supervisors whether approved or declined to approve that automatically becomes effective law. Again, if I am missing something please do help us know where this authority to not expend the funds that is the will of the People through their elected officials.

    1. The evidence for the fact that Breed and blow off the Board is that she just did, pearl clutching be damned.

    2. It doesn’t seem like the Mayor is against opening the hotels to the homeless and those in need of quarantining, but in not having safety measures in place for staff and janatorial services first:

      “This means having proper staffing, personal protective equipment, and safety protocols in place. I know it’s not easy, but we need to continue to do everything we can to support everyone living and working in these hotels.
      That is why I cannot sign any legislation that does not acknowledge the challenges of operating these sites. I will not support a law requiring us to open thousands of rooms before we can do so safely, let alone by April 26th, which is tomorrow. I recognize the passion and advocacy behind the legislation, but our urgent actions must be paired with reality. We must work together to put forward aggressive solutions that take care of those in need and, in the age of social distancing, provide protection to those people who put themselves at risk to take care of those in need.”

      Politicized finger pointing is a pointless discussion unless you can add nuance to the difficulty of safely implementing this program—doing nothing and moving too quickly both present safety risks – negotiating a path forward where everyone’s safety and support is considered isn’t a ‘“for or against “ issue for those of us dealing with this from afar. At this point Mayor Breed’s position doesn’t seem unreasonable or in opposition to the BOS’s decision.

  7. Remember that time Mayor Breed proposed lifting height limits on affordable housing construction across the city and the “progressive” super-majority on the board of supervisors blocked it to preserve “community character”?

  8. This article, and especially the comments section, are fantastic examples of why the rest of America holds San Francisco as the special place of the total nutters. Keep up the good work. As more and more of Silicon Valley and the money flows from it to fund this lunacy leaves the area, you’ll fully become the wasteland of junkies, bums and panhandlers you’re trolling for.

  9. Mayor Breed thank you……homelessness is not an easy issue to tackle many people of the homeless have to condition themselves to the condition of the outdoors to the indoors buying food traveling without a car and sleep deperation good people always like to help thank God there is a God and always help the less fortunate to better life. Coronavirius is an epidemic to be solved by all…..

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