James says police insisted he stay within his tent near the Asian Art Museum after 10 p.m. due to a 'curfew.' Photo by Lydia Chavez

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San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragón was hard-pressed for answers Tuesday evening as members of the Board of Supervisors grilled him about the Department of Public Health’s perceived lack of coronavirus strategy to address the city’s 8,000 homeless individuals. 

“I’ve, frankly, been shocked that there has not been one health order issued yet directly related to this population …” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, asking Aragón why he has not yet issued a binding order to commandeer hotel rooms to allow the homeless to safely shelter in place. 

Aragón said the city needed to exhaust all its resources to obtain hotel rooms before taking the dramatic step of commandeering them, per advice from the City Attorney. “So it didn’t seem to me to make sense to do an order if the city has the capacity to negotiate and get hotel rooms,” he said, “as the Board of Supervisors has also passed an ordinance to require that, as well.” 

Ronen rejected his answer. A City Attorney memo, she argued, opines that both Aragón and Mayor London Breed have the legal right to commandeer the rooms no matter what. 

“You just shut down the entire economy of San Francisco … and I stood by you, and I stand by you in that decision,” she said. “You have not been willing to do that for the homeless population.” 

“I’ve explained the best way I could,” Aragón said. “That’s all I’m prepared to say at the moment.” 

Many of the supervisors echoed each other during the two-hour briefing at the tail end of the virtual Board of Supervisors meeting. They accused Aragón and the city’s Health Department of leaving the city’s homeless individuals to languish on the streets with little guidance and few resources for weathering the pandemic. As the criticism grew more intense, so too did Aragón’s attempts to leave the meeting (“I am really going to have to run because my wife is going to be very upset with me.”) 

Everyone was upset with him. 

The meeting did, indeed, go longer than originally planned (there was really that much frustration and anger), and Aragón’s colleague, Dr. Grant Colfax, the Health Department director, cut out just before the melee on homelessness began. 

But before Colfax left his colleague alone with the angry supervisors, he insisted that, from the beginning, the homeless population has been a “key priority” for his department. The Department of Public Health, he said, has been successful in placing hundreds of homeless people in hotel rooms, particularly individuals with chronic conditions and individuals over 60. “Really, doing that has saved many lives,” he said, noting that the city has a capacity of 500 hotel rooms for the population with only 200 occupied. 

The debate over whether to move San Francisco’s homeless population en masse into hotel rooms has become an ongoing political battle between the supervisors and Mayor Breed’s administration.

Since the crisis arrived in mid-March, the board has pushed to give rooms to every homeless person, while Colfax and Breed have insisted on only providing rooms to the most vulnerable and those who have been exposed to the virus. The mayor has stated she intends to obtain 7,000 hotel rooms — but without a firm timeframe. The board last month passed an ordinance requiring the city to obtain 8,000 hotel rooms by the end of April — but the mayor chose not to carry out the law, which is within her purview. 

As of Monday, 156 homeless individuals have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, one has died and 22 “had a recent hospitalization,” said Jenna Lane, a Health Department spokeswoman, noting that “COVID may or may not be the cause of these hospitalizations; it could be discovered while a patient is being treated for another condition.” 

Since April 24, there has been a 16 percent increase in cases, she said. 

But a lack of confirmed cases is also an indicator of a lack of testing. And so far, the city has made free, accessible testing available for frontline health care workers, first responders, essential workers, and San Franciscans showing symptoms.  

The homeless and residents living in SROs, however, do not have easy access to testing. And the supes asked Aragón the reason — especially as the city now has a testing capacity of 5,800 per day. 

Aragón said that it has taken a while to achieve that capacity, and that the city is working toward “universal testing.” 

He did mention that the Health Department will soon test 800 residents and 1,500 staff at Laguna Honda, a large care facility, and will be moving to other congregate living facilities in time. 

But testing alone is half the battle, Aragón said, “because when you test, you’re going to find staff and residents in long term care facilities, some of whom are positive — and then you have to figure out what to do with them.” 

That kicks off a process of “infection control,” he said. And then the Health Department needs to retrain staff on how not to get infected again, and staff members have to leave and perhaps isolate. 

“So there’s all this work that has to be done to make sure that they mitigate what’s happening in their site,” he said, and “also figure out a path forward.”

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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20 Comments

    1. Hopefully “commandeer” doesn’t mean they expect the hotels to provide these rooms for free or below market. I feel bad for their staff — they will have to handle some of the craziest that most of us try hard to avoid on the streets. Hopefully the city is being careful about who they allow into the hotels. Still, I expect that a ton of cleaning and renovation will be required before these hotels will be able to host business travelers and the like at market prices

  1. Isn’t this the same Board of Supervisors that rejected a proposal to lift height limits across the city for affordable housing last year and has continually resisted efforts to open Navigation Centers and other homeless services in their districts?

    Since when are they pro-homeless?

    I’m not sure why people still take these people seriously. We have a homeless crisis because the Board of Supervisors continually blocks efforts to re-zone the city to make large scale affordable housing construction possible (at the behest of their rich homeowner supporters and neighborhood groups). Hence the lack of homes and the people living on the street.

    Maybe if they did less grandstanding and actually used the levers of power at their disposal to make the difficult trade-offs necessary to solve the problem, the next time we have a pandemic there wouldn’t be thousands of people living on the streets.

    1. Doris,

      Spot on critique — the hypocrisy and cognitive disconnect emanating from Ronen and the (so-called) “progressive” BOS is simply astounding.

  2. Now we have thousands of new homeless moving here because of the promise of free hotel rooms.

      1. Little joe and the radical lefts churning out falsities. Little joe head out at ask the homeless. You won’t have to spend more than 5 minutes to find a recent transplant homeless. Why not take an official tally you say? Why would we waste even another minute on this population of druggies?

        1. Still you, Doctor!

          You’re no longer permitted to post on this site because of your incessant sock-puppeting.

          But you keep trying.

          JE

          1. Joe,

            Let’s take him up on his offer. He won’t be able to find a single one!

  3. Doris, in what universe does building new housing take homeless people off the street? On this planet, Earth, the cost of new building prohibits even so-called “affordable” housing out of reach for those currently living on the streets.

    1. The cost of building is prohibitively expensive because labor costs are astronomical (due to a lack of affordable housing which makes workers commute long distances) and regulatory red tape & fees.

      There is no serious proposal for fixing SF’s homeless challenges that doesn’t involve a massive expansion of our housing supply which has been routinely blocked by the Board of Supervisors. Housing First has been shown to be the most effective and humane way to solve homelessness.

      If it’s impossible to build, make dense affordable house legal and then we’ll see what else needs to be done. If the Board of Supervisors actually cares about the plight of our city’s homeless population, why do they stand in the way?

  4. The quarantine is almost over why are we beating this dead cat? The city is opening up day by day, the state-wide shelter is being eased. There have only been 33 deaths in all of San Francisco. This is too late and too much attention has been paid to hotels-for-the-homeless-gate. Tempest in a tea pot here. Not to mention, the city doesn’t have money to pay for hotel rooms for 8,000 homeless people.

    This just seems like posturing by the supervisors and pandering to the progressive base. Meanwhile homeless encampments take over the city because the city has not found a viable solution to the massive and growing homeless population in SF, a not insignificant portion of which are people addicted to drugs and the severely mentally ill.

    San Francisco is looking more and more like a dystopian future disaster site. The situation is getting worse, not better, meanwhile the city supervisors grandstand about hotel rooms (which are a temporary band-aid).

    1. The quarantine isn’t close to over, the city supes are not going to allow most businesses to re open anytime soon. People want to go out, and are driving around more, but there’s nowhere to go. Curbside pickup at malls is a joke, the point of such places is to browse.

  5. Ronen again demonstrates that she is more about grandstanding at meetings and passing impossible-to-implement legislation for political gain than she is at actually thinking realistically about solutions. I donated to her first run to be a supervisor. Never again. I’m betting she’d also be “frankly shocked” that a former supporter would call bluff on her means, even while I agree with her goals. Also, Mission Local, are you that desperate that you have to resort to headlines about Supes “assailing” public workers? I also donated to this website in support of local news, but will be more wary of click-bait headlines about grandstanding supes going forward.

    1. Hello there. Thanks for reading and membership. I wrote that headline.

      I’m confused at why you’d think a supermajority of supes giving Dr. Aragon the business in an extended, uncomfortable public Q-and-A session doesn’t meet the dictionary definition of “assail.” I’m also confused at how putting the word “assail” in a headline qualifies as “click-bait.” Would “harangue” have qualified as “click-bait”? Because there was definitely haranguing going on.

      I’ll leave others to decide whether the supes were grandstanding or not — or if most public hearings could qualify as that — but the headline accurately describes the story and the story accurately describes reality.

      Yours,

      JE

      1. Well since the word assail means to concertedly attack, and usually implies violence, my first thought when I read the headline was that violence broke out at the meeting. I quickly realized that probably wasn’t the case, and I don’t think the headline qualifies as clickbait, but it’s not unreasonable for HJ to view it as such. Harangue would certainly be a more accurate word, since assail does convey an implication of violence, although this is not always the case.

  6. Another spin doctor we don’t need. Who is commandeering rooms? Who can follow Dr. Aragón’s reasoning? Before we start to use the empty rooms that are being paid for we must negotiate for more rooms? Really? People just want to move into the rooms sitting empty now. We are told that there is a waiting list for the rooms but, no one, in including the supervisors, is allowed to see it. WHY ARE WE PAYING FOR EMPTY ROOMS?

    What happened to the trailers and RVs we heard about? Has anyone moved into them yet? What is the problem with using them? And what happened to plans to set aside safe parking for vehicle dwellers? How many years will it take to get that done? This is not a disaster plan. This is nightmare of incompetence.

    1. Everything runs together in quarantine, but do you remember when they trumpeted an announcement of encampments in parks with running water, toilets, laundry and showers? Was that last week? Last month? What’s on deck for them to tease us with next?

    2. Wait, why would they set aside parking for vehicle dwellers? If someone is living out of a car there’s no reason for them to park it in the city. In fact, that seems extremely counter-intuitive. They could park in a different city with more room and fewer auto burglaries, and spend less on gas and food. If the want a shorter commute to work, they can join the club, that’s not a good reason. If they are unemployed, then there’s no reason to be in SF (besides to take advantage of the city’s kid gloves approach to homelessness) and they should head to the central valley

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