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. 


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