More than 50 people gathered outside Mayor London Breed’s house in Lower Haight Thursday evening in a call for more hotel rooms to be opened up for people experiencing homelessness. Half a dozen people in masks lay in the street staging a “die-in,” while nurses, doctors, homeless advocates, and faith leaders held signs and spoke into megaphones, gazing up at the mayor’s apartment.
The action comes three weeks after 92 residents of a massive homeless shelter in SoMa — MSC South — tested positive for COVID-19. This week, two cases were discovered at one of the city’s navigation centers. The Coalition on Homelessness, health professionals, and Faith in Action, all of which helped organize the protest, sounded the alarm back in March that the city’s homeless population would be disproportionately affected by the virus unless people were able to access housing where they could self-isolate and quarantine.
At Thursday’s protest, Dr. Noelle Martinez, said that not a day goes by where she doesn’t witness the physical and mental consequences of poverty and lack of housing.
“While those experiencing homelessness bear witness to our society’s greatest faults, our institutions’ greatest failings, they carry that proof in their bodies, in their muscles, in their bones, in their kidneys, in their hearts, and now their lungs,” she said. “With this inaction you are sentencing them to yet another insult.”
Ian Carrier, an unhoused 38-year-old San Franciscan recently died after battling what appeared to be COVID-19. He suffered from numerous health issues, and spent the last four months in and out of the hospital on dialysis and a ventilator. His family told the New York Times they believe he had an early and undiagnosed case of COVID-19.
When Carrier was discharged from the hospital on Monday, he fit the city’s hotel room criteria, as he was critically at risk of COVID-19 due to being so medically unstable from his months in the hospital. But service providers were told there were no more rooms available — despite the fact that there were approximately 30,000 hotels rooms available in late March. Carrier died 26 hours later in his wheelchair on Hyde and Eddy streets.
In the past three weeks two other people — Jill Deane and Anthony Monroy — have died on the streets while experiencing homelessness. It’s unclear if their deaths were COVID-19 related, and similar cases may emerge in the coming weeks. On Thursday morning, news broke that a plan to test every resident of a homeless shelter in San Francisco had been reversed by the city.
Breed has repeatedly come under fire from advocates, faith leaders, and other politicians in City Hall over her stark lack of support for San Francisco’s unhoused residents during the shelter in place ordinance. While the Bay Area has succeeded thus far in flattening the curve, demographic studies clearly show that marginalized populations are being disproportionately affected. The highest rates of infection are in the Latinx-heavy Mission, and the Bayview, which houses the majority of the city’s Black residents.
But race isn’t the only factor; health professionals and advocates say massive explosions like that at MSC South could have been prevented if the city had moved all shelter residents into hotel rooms.
To their credit, many of San Francisco’s politicians have been working around the clock in an effort to do just that. The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a law earlier this month requiring that the city purchase 8,250 hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. But the deadline came and went on Sunday, with only 3,000 rooms provided. The criteria to access such a room is strict; you must be over 60 years of age, specifically at risk, or already exposed to the virus.
Sam Lew of the Coalition on Homelessness says that lack of action is “essentially sentencing homeless people to death.” And in the meantime, thousands of people who live on the streets are left to face the pandemic alone.
Reverend Monique Ortiz challenged Breed not just on her policies, but her faith. “They are human beings like just you and I, they are beautiful and precious,” she said. “You are a woman of God, and we are calling you out. Don’t blind your eyes and don’t harden your heart anymore.”
It’s unclear if Breed was home during the event; no movement was seen behind her curtains, though her downstairs neighbors gathered in their windows to watch the goings on. Protesters left their handmade signs — most printed on the backs of old Prop C campaign material — on her doorstep.
“I’ve seen the good and the bad,” said Emmett House, who used to be homeless before landing a spot in public housing. “This is the ugly.”