San Francisco reports first COVID-19 case in homeless shelter; supes call for more hotel rooms

The City of San Francisco has reported its first case of the novel coronavirus at a homeless shelter, according to the city's Department of Emergency Management.

The patient who tested positive for COVID-19 was staying at the Division Circle Navigation Center and is currently in good condition, recovering in isolation at a hotel room, DEM officials said.

Although officials with the city's Department of Public Health and Homeless and Supportive Housing Department don't yet know how the patient contracted the virus, the agencies are working together to minimize the spread within the congregate space.

Upon learning of the case, health officials supplied the center with extra masks for both staff and residents to wear at all times.

Additionally, DPH has deployed doctors and health workers at the site to conduct symptom and temperature screenings for staff and residents. Anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms will be tested and relocated to a staffed hotel room for quarantine.

Other residents may be moved, depending on their risk of exposure, DEM officials said. DPH staff is also looking into who the patient came into contact with over the last few days. In addition to the measures already underway, the city will deploy a professional cleaning crew to the center to thoroughly disinfect it.

Since the shelter-in-place order first took effect last month, the city has moved to expand its shelter system, in addition to acquiring hotel rooms and trailers, for homeless people affected by COVID-19.

The new shelter at Moscone Center West, opening Thursday, will provide 390 new beds to add to the shelter system and help create more space and social distance at other shelters. The city is also eyeing two other potential shelter locations.

Additionally, the city has acquired more than a thousand hotel rooms and more than 100 trailers for homeless people in shelters who have symptoms, tested positive or have been exposed, but don't require hospitalization.

"We have been preparing for this situation for weeks, and HSH and DPH are wrapping around the patient with health care and support," Abigail Stewart-Kahn, Interim Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said in a statement. "The wellbeing of our homeless neighbors is our top priority, and we will continue to work in partnership with our nonprofit service providers, DPH, and the entire city to aggressively contain the virus and protect our community."

In a statement, San Francisco supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, Dean Preston, Shamann Walton and Aaron Peskin thanked the city for its work to keep the city's homeless safe, but said the case could have been avoided.

"Spread of this virus in shelters is inevitable with hundreds of people sleeping in close quarters, sharing bathrooms and common areas," they said. "This individual and hundreds of others should have been moved out of the shelter weeks ago."

Although the supervisors earlier this week approved measures calling for the city to move the city's 8,000 homeless residents in hotel rooms, whether they're in the shelter system or on the streets or encampments, they said the city hasn't been supportive.

"We have been met with resistance and told that the city will have private rooms for unhoused people 'eventually.' Despite the fact that there are over 30,000 vacant hotel rooms in the city for use -- the mayor's office and city departments in charge have not moved a single person out of shelters or off the streets before they became or were suspected to be infected," the supervisors said in the statement.

The supervisors announced they'll be introducing an emergency ordinance at the upcoming Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting to require that at least 1,000 hotel rooms be used for homeless people in congregate settings like shelters. Additionally, the supervisors will mandate that the city lease 14,000 hotel rooms by the end of April to be used as quarantine rooms.

Breed said Wednesday that although she would like to help all of the city's homeless residents, including those on the streets in encampments and not belonging to vulnerable populations, the resources just aren't available at the moment.

"I know that we have thousands of hotel rooms here in San Francisco, and I know that people are asking, 'Well why don't we just open the doors and just let everyone who's homeless get access to a hotel room?' I wish it were that easy to help people who are unfortunately struggling with addiction, people who are sadly struggling with mental illness," she said.

"I want to be clear that the capacity and the resources in general needed to provide the wrap-around services for many of these populations make it very difficult to just open the doors and allow just anyone to walk in. And in addition to that, we don't have the ability to force anyone to stay anywhere, so that also becomes a challenge, even with our shelter systems," the mayor said.

A source in the mayor’s office said placing the homeless in hotels would cost upwards of $50-60 million a month, money the city cannot get back from Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Supervisor Ronen said it's unconscionable to allow people to stay in close quarters or on the streets in the midst of a pandemic.

"From a common sense perspective, and from a health perspective, we need to house in hotels in some of the 30,000 hotel rooms that are empty as we speak...people experiencing homelessness," said Ronen.