I scan the City’s COVID-19 Alternative Housing dashboard this morning as I have most mornings since April. “Total Current in SIP Hotels: 2,340” and “Total Current in SIP Congregate: 485” read a few of the metrics, typical of the acronym-filled jargon that fills most City reports. (Translation: “SIP” stands for “shelter in place” and “congregate” is a group setting like a shelter.) My fellow Hotels Not Hospitals organizers and I have struggled to find out what’s really going on in the hotels, but Mayor Breed and City officials have been scant on details. So we’re stuck with these numbers instead. The City bureaucracy loves metrics and churns them out endlessly, but we’re never told the stories behind the figures. Who is in the 675th hotel room or the 1,760th? What stories does the person in the 240th congregate bed have? How did they wind up there, and what has their experience been with the City’s offering? The dashboard would have you believe they’re interchangeable.
Rosibel, one of our Hotels Not Hospitals guests, arrived in the U.S. this year after applying for asylum from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center where she spent four months. She was beaten by other detainees, neglected and threatened by staff, served inedible food, and had no access to a private bed, bathroom or shower. For a trans woman, these conditions made her particularly vulnerable. Her time since arriving in San Francisco has been difficult. She has survived several instances of violence, including being kidnapped off the street by a stranger as she was trying to sleep. She has been sexually assaulted, beaten and robbed of her money and personal documents. What she wants is some sanctuary, a full kitchen where she can cook her Honduran dishes. “The home is everything, it’s what should come first,” she said. She feels safer in the hotel provided by our project. It’s more secure than other places she’s stayed, and it’s cleaner and quieter. She has a private bathroom and worries less about violence from strangers or police. She hopes to attain a level of autonomy and stability in her housing so that she can find a job and help her family back in Honduras. Rosibel’s story is not one-size-fits-all.
The San Francisco Chronicle, ever questioning if we can afford the price tag of basic human rights, recently put the City’s cost per hotel room at $260 per night. That doesn’t just include the room but an array of staffers keeping watch. Do all 2,340 of these human beings need to be constantly monitored? “We’re not babysitters,” said Mayor London Breed of the program in May with her standard dose of condescension towards unhoused people. This was just the latest of a string of excuses put forward by the City for leaving over 5,000 people to shelter in place on bare concrete (Some others: “We don’t have the ability to force anyone,” it’s not “fiscally prudent,” and the myth-that-won’t-die of out-of-towners flooding in). In the City’s heavy-handed approach, grown adults who simply need a place to stay must be “babysat.” When the Mayor’s administration raised staffing as a reason why the Board of Supervisors’ mandated target of 8,250 rooms could not be reached, the Board shot back with a recommendation for “low needs” hotels that could operate with minimal staffing. The recommendation was ignored, and the Mayor couldn’t even get to one-third of the target. One-size-fits-all thinking dehumanizes and leaves people behind.
John, another Hotels Not Hospitals guest, was injured on the job years ago when he fell from dangerous scaffolding. As a result of his injury, his boss fired him and he lost his home. He has been on the streets for over 10 years. Earlier this year he was sleeping on the street and was swept by the City, forcing him to another part of town. Like many other people experiencing homelessness across San Francisco, John was forcibly displaced from one place to another seemingly without purpose. Shortly after, he was robbed. Before this month, John had not slept indoors in months. A place to sleep has been a huge blessing, according to John. He tells us that he is hoping to turn this experience into permanent housing. John’s story is not one-size-fits-all.
In one of the richest cities in the world, we must continue to demand more of our elected officials, and until they are up to the task, we must organize and take matters into our own hands. A crisis that leaves thousands of people to sleep on the streets every night, an abomination during “normal” times, has been compounded by twin public health crises of COVID-19 and toxic wildfire smoke. Inaction has killed twice as many unhoused people this year compared to 2019.
Hotels Not Hospitals exists to show that for John, Rosibel and thousands of other unhoused people, the speculation-fueled housing market and capitalist system that prioritizes profits over human dignity has thoroughly failed. With a nationwide eviction crisis looming, many millions more among us are vulnerable to losing our homes. As organizers, some of whom have been homeless ourselves, we are helping our neighbors get through this pandemic safely while building community, solidarity and resilient relationships. Contributing to our project has a direct and immediate impact, enabling unsheltered people to live indoors for at least part of this pandemic. With money already donated we’ve secured hotel rooms for three people, but we’re just getting started. To donate and get involved, visit hotelsnothospitals.org.
It has been said “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Socialist organizing and mutual aid are critical components in creating a material vision of how society can be transformed when released from the predatory clutches of capital. Longer-term we seek to transform the housing system to one based on need rather than corporate greed. Building a more compassionate, humane society will require all of us to organize, mobilize and fight for a fundamentally different politics.
Hotels Not Hospitals is a project of the DSA SF Homelessness Working Group.