coronavirus

New San Francisco COVID-19 Cases Prompt Strategy Change

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San Francisco officials on Monday embraced using vacant hotel rooms to house the city’s at-risk homeless population within hours after two residents of the city’s largest shelter tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, Mayor London Breed disclosed that the two residents who tested positive while being housed at Multi Service Center South, a 340 bed facility run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, have been moved, along with 19 other residents who had been exposed.

Last week, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spoke with someone staying at MSC South, who recounted having to sleep in close quarters with other residents.

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“I’d rather be there than on the streets,” said Jake Shak, as he stood in line for services.  

On Monday, city officials announced the MSC South facility was being disinfected and would reopen with new rules requiring the wearing of masks for residents and staff as well as more rigorous temperature checks at the facility. Also, experts were interviewing staff and residents about who might have been exposed.

Meanwhile, a top official overseeing the city’s homeless strategy, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, suggested the city is shifting away from its previous focus on new largescale shelters in favor of moving as many as 4,500 at-risk homeless into vacant hotel rooms.  

 “There are many factors - hotel staffing, meals, transportation, security, cleaning,” she said in implementing that shift. “I want to thank the non-profit community for moving forward as rapidly as possible.”

While a timeline for that strategy was not announced, city officials did give signs as to how it will be carried out.

For example, the city will only house 200 homeless at Moscone Center West, instead of the 390 originally envisioned under the city’s $5 million emergency homeless response plan.

And while the new configuration at Moscone West will feature more distance and privacy partitions, the new facility will be limited to lower risk individuals who have either already survived the virus or are not in high risk categories and test negative.  

Still, city officials did not say how soon homeless will start moving in large numbers into some of the city’s currently vacant 40,000 hotel rooms.  

City Supervisor Matt Haney, who has repeatedly criticized the city’s homeless response, said the latest action is too little, too late.

“It’s not enough,” he said. “Every single old, or sick, or vulnerable person should be in a hotel, if they can self-care, tonight -- we have the rooms, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to commit to that.”

Haney pointed to the case of Laguna Honda Hospital, where 16 residents and staff became stricken while the city waited to put strong safety measures in place. Haney said he worries that the city may already be too late for the homeless.

“Common sense will tell you that this environment  is incredibly dangerous,” he said Monday, “and should have been broken up, distanced, and people sent to other places weeks ago -- and I just think there’s no excuse for it.”

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