On April 20, the COVID-19 Command Center told the roughly 150 residents sheltering at the Moscone Center West emergency shelter location that they would soon have to find new accommodations, as Moscone Center plans to reopen for regular business. The projected date for the site to fully shut down to shelter guests is June 30.
Since last spring, hundreds of otherwise homeless residents have been sheltering at the Moscone Center. The site houses people who were referred by the Homeless Outreach Team or Guest Placement Team, were sent by the Healthy Streets Operation Center during an encampment sweep, have been denied service at shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels or other shelters, or are coming out of isolation and quarantine hotels after recovering from COVID-19.
The City’s initial plan to warehouse homeless residents on barely distanced mats on the floor was publicized by Street Sheet last April and received national attention for its failure to meet basic safety needs for homeless folks in the face of a global pandemic. The City announced a policy shift the day after the story ran and instead began moving those it deemed “COVID vulnerable” into SIP hotels. Since then, the Moscone site has been an emergency shelter for those who don’t meet the City’s vulnerability requirements with enhanced social distancing measures and dividers for guests, allowing for more privacy and safety.
The news of the coming site closure came as a shock to staff who reached out to Street Sheet out of concern for where current guests will be placed, and how that transition will be communicated. Some of the site’s current guests arrived at Moscone after initially being told that they were going to SIP hotels, or being told nothing at all, so there is an understandable lack of trust. And even more concerning is that while the notice says many guests will be offered placements at Site S — formerly Next Door — and another site run by Five Keys, it does not guarantee that guests will not be turned back onto the streets.
The sudden announcement and the lack of clarity about what will happen to residents has created chaos for workers and guests alike, but this is hardly an anomalous process. Since the traditional shelter system stopped accepting new guests through the 311 system in April 2020, the COVID Command Center’s Guest Placement Team has been responsible for placements in all the shelters, including existing adult shelters and SIP hotels, and they don’t have the best track record communicating with residents.
Ben Baczkowski, a shelter–client advocate with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, says some of the confusion stems from an unusual intermingling of responsibility between the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Human Services Agency, and Department of Public Health in the COVID Command Center, which try to operate as if they are individual agencies. “In practice what that means is they have created this nebulous web of so-called ‘bureaucratic accountability.’ And the overall effect is that as a provider and as a resident it is really chaotic in the hotels and shelter system,” Baczkowski says.
As residents at Moscone grapple with uncertainty about where they will go next, SIP hotel guests are in a similar boat. While the City has publicly committed to offering housing placements to everyone who was in the SIP hotel system up until October 1, 2020, the process is moving quite slowly. According to publicly available data accessed on April 30, of the 2,235 people waiting for housing in the SIP hotels or broader shelter system, 51% have yet to be entered into Coordinated Entry, and 18% are listed as Problem Solving Status, meaning they could be exited back into homelessness. Only 30% have been deemed Housing Referral Status, meaning they qualify to be placed into housing coming out of the SIP system. (Percentages do not add to 100 due to rounding.) Of the 678 people who are Housing Referral Status, 67% have no placement or housing offer to date.
Baczkowski says he regularly gets phone calls from unhoused people worried about what they should be doing to try to get a housing offer, so that they don’t end up going back to the streets. He says that people who had been in the Coordinated Entry system before the pandemic are now being bypassed as people in hotels are prioritized, pitting hotel tenants and shelter guests against each other for limited resources.
Baczkowski also raised concerns about the lack of due process being offered to hotel tenants and shelter guests alike. Thanks to the homelessness advocate Arnette Watson, the Shelter Grievance Policy was put in place in San Francisco in 1992 to protect shelter guests from being arbitrarily denied service. It meant that if you got kicked out of a shelter or evicted from your transitional housing, you’d be able to appeal the decision, and there would be a hearing with shelter staff and an advocate to try and reach an agreement. If that doesn’t work, resolution falls to an independent decision maker who is a licensed attorney.
“While the policy has not officially changed, its implementation has fallen dramatically short during the pandemic,” says Baczkowski.
The City “took this opportunity to suspend due process in the emergency housing system, and now if you get kicked out there’s no way to get back in, and if someone says ‘Oh, well, you threatened me,’ then that person is effectively barred from being rehoused in the system,” he says. “People are not getting housed, they are languishing in these sites, there is anger and frustration among people being passed over, and people with mental health problems. There are lots of people who really need housing who are being left for dead, for lack of a better word.”