Tag: San Francisco

As COVID-19 Rages, Cities Struggle to Move People from Shelters into Safer Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square.

This excerpt is from a piece I wrote for Huffington Post, where you can read the entire story.

Ordinarily, the atmosphere in the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter in Seattle was just this side of chaos. During the day, men and women crowded into the community room and hung out in a narrow corridor known as the “bowling alley,” arguing, sleeping and jockeying for space.

At night, the clients settled into metal bunks without pillows or sheets, trying to sleep through the sounds and smells of dozens of other people all around them.

These days, though, the space is quiet. Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC began reducing capacity, and in early March, the city moved the remaining 129 residents to an exhibition hall near the Space Needle. One month later, King County moved them to a Red Lion hotel in Renton, a suburb just southeast of Seattle. The move gave them access to real beds, private showers, and three meals a day ― amenities that were unimaginable before COVID-19.

For some, it’s the first time they’ve slept in a bed, in a room with four walls and a door that locks, in years. The difference, both physically and psychologically, is profound. “Staying at the shelter downtown, you’re always at risk. People are stealing from you. There’s junkies shooting up by you. People just want to attack you,” said Michael C., who asked HuffPost to use his first name and last initial only to protect his privacy. “And here it’s a safe place.”

“I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Dan Williams, DESC’s shelter operations manager, said that after staying in the hotel for just a week or so, Michael was unrecognizable ― so much so that Williams followed him down the hallway when he walked in one day, thinking he wasn’t supposed to be there.

“To see this individual, compared to the way that I knew him a month ago, I didn’t know who he was,” Williams said. “His whole presentation was different. He felt comfortable to shower, because it wasn’t in this group setting where anybody could blow through that door at any second.”

Marcus M., another resident who asked to use his first name and last initial only, said the biggest difference is that he doesn’t have to fight for space or deal with the constant threat of confrontation. He would normally sleep in the shelter’s day room because he found the cavernous bunk room too noisy and chaotic. In the hotel, “I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Across the country, local governments are engaged in a debate about the most effective way to shelter people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Some have moved people to larger spaces, such as rec centers and convention halls, where they can sleep farther apart in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Other places, including Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco, have also begun moving homeless people into hotels, usually focusing on those who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable.

“What he needed was to be treated with dignity. That was it. And congregate homeless shelters do not do that.”

It’s not just about what’s safer. At the core of the debate is the question of cost ― hotels are generally more expensive than shelters ― and what it will mean when the pandemic is over.

Shelters have problems that extend beyond the spread of COVID-19. If it turns out that cities could have mobilized quickly to house people all along, it may be hard to justify putting people back in shelters once the immediate crisis is over.

For now, cities are beginning to move toward a hotel model for housing people. But many have struggled to do so efficiently. In late March, the city of San Francisco announced that it would open the George R. Moscone Convention Center as a shelter for 400 people, with mats placed six feet apart and divided by lines of tape ― an arrangement that opponents derided as an indoor concentration camp.

After a week of protests from homeless advocates and city supervisors, the city switched gears, downsizing plans for the shelter and committing to moving more unsheltered people into hotels to meet physical distancing directives. On April 10, the city publicly acknowledged a major COVID-19 outbreak at the Multi-Service Center-South Shelter, the largest shelter in the city.

San Francisco counted more than 17,000 people experiencing homelessness last year using a new method that more than doubled the 8,000 found in the most recent traditional one-night count. Mayor London Breed said in early April that the city would secure 7,000 hotel rooms as temporary shelter, and on April 15, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance directing Breed to increase that to 8,250 hotel rooms. Breed refused to sign the ordinance, saying it didn’t “acknowledge the challenges of operating these sites.”

As of late last week, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco said that fewer than 700 homeless people had moved into hotels. At a press conference last Wednesday, Breed said that “it’s difficult to project a timeline” for moving more people into hotels.

“We can’t fight a plague while exempting more than 10,000 people from any ability to stay inside and protect themselves,” said Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In Seattle, where dozens of COVID-19 cases have been linked to homeless shelters, Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted the idea of leasing or buying hotels for homeless residents. The city government is separate from that of King County, which contains Seattle and which has invested in hotel rooms like those at the Red Lion.

Durkan spokesperson Ernesto Apreza says the Federal Emergency Management Agency would only reimburse the city for hotel rooms for people who have been exposed to COVID-19, are over 65, or are otherwise vulnerable. “FEMA requires most sheltering support to be in a congregate setting,” Apreza said.

In fact, numerous states have already requested, and some have received, reimbursement for hotel rooms for the general homeless population, not just those who are “vulnerable.” In Connecticut, where FEMA already expanded reimbursement once to include domestic violence victims, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) made all shelter residents eligible for hotel rooms and is asking FEMA to expand its reimbursement qualifications again. New York, which is moving people into hotel rooms regardless of whether they’re “vulnerable” under the early federal guidelines, has already received FEMA reimbursement. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, states that take the initiative by expanding eligibility and requesting funds under the new criteria have a good chance of being reimbursed.

Read the rest of the story at HuffPost.

What Can Cities Do For Women? Let’s Ask San Francisco

Last week, I mentioned (with some consternation) that in a 45-minute speech focusing on actions the city can take to mitigate the impacts of Trump Administration policies, Mayor Ed Murray did not find time to suggest a single policy that would benefit women. The omission was particularly galling given that just last a few weeks earlier, 170,000-plus Seattle women and allies marched from Judkins Park to downtown Seattle denouncing the administration’s proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act (leaving more women uninsured and reverting to a system that allowed insurance companies to charge women more for insurance just for being women), defund Planned Parenthood, overturn a rule that ensures access to affordable birth control, and gut the Violence Against Women Act. (Murray mentioned the march in his speech as an example of “a surge of action across the nation,” but did not follow up with any policy proposals that might have responded to that action.)

After the speech, I talked to Murray spokesman Benton Strong a couple of times about the mayor’s omission of women from his agenda. Strong made the point that the State of the City isn’t a policy speech—the mayor usually announces big policy initiatives in his budget speech, which happens in September. Fair, but Murray’s state of the city did include a number of concrete proposals to protect immigrants and refugees, to improve outcomes for young black men, and to close the educational achievement gap. And none of Murray’s three budget speeches so far have included specific proposals to help or benefit women, so any new proposals in this year’s budget would represent a departure from precedent for Murray.

Strong also argued, reasonably enough, that ensuring health care access and funding for family planning is generally the responsibility of the state and county. He also asked me what I would propose the city to do protect women’s health care, promote pay equity, or ensure that women can take time off to care for a new baby or a family member. To quote April Ryan, I’m just a reporter, but I decided to look to see if other cities are doing anything that we could emulate. Turns out, I didn’t have to look that far. Just two states south, San Francisco has adopted quite a few policies to improve women’s equality in that city. Here are a few ideas for Mayor Murray to consider.

1. Paid parental leave

Taking time off after the birth or adoption of a new baby is vitally important to the wellbeing of both parents (particularly birth mothers) and their children, yet the US is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee a single day of paid parental leave. Low-income women and those with part-time or unstable jobs are hit hardest by this national failure, because they often have to return to work immediately after giving birth, giving them no time to recover or bond with their new baby. Last year, San Francisco became the first US city to address this national failure, by passing a law that requires all companies with 20 or more employees to provide six weeks of parental leave, fully paid, to new parents. (The policy complements a state law that provides six weeks of leave paid at 55 percent of a new parent’s original salary). Washington, D.C. also recently adopted a generous paid leave law, which requires companies to pay workers 90 percent of their salaries for up to eight weeks. Council member Lorena Gonzalez is currently meeting with business leaders in a series of closed-door roundtables to hear their concerns about a city-level paid-leave mandate.

pay-equity-report2. Equal Pay

Seattle still has one of the biggest pay gaps between men and women in the nation, with women earning 73 cents on the male dollar for doing the same work. Seattle has taken some action toward closing the 10-cent pay gap in city employment—a number that obscures the fact that women are underrepresented in the highest-paying city jobs—but so far has done nothing to close the yawning gulf between what private employers pay men and women for doing the same work.

This might seem like a good place for the state to step in, imposing penalties on employers who discriminate by paying women less than men. So far, though, they haven’t (and with the state senate controlled by Republicans, they won’t), so it might be up to cities to step in. San Francisco has already taken steps in that direction, by passing an Equal Pay Ordinance that requires companies that contract with the city to prove that they pay men and women equally by filing annual pay equity reports with the city’s Human Rights Commission. The commission has the authority to penalize contractors who pay women less than men. It’s not a perfect law—requiring private employers to publish what they pay their workers by race and gender would go further toward promoting pay equity in the long run—but it’s a step in the right direction, one that Seattle hasn’t taken (yet)

3. Family-friendly workplace policies

One issue that often comes up for new and expecting parents, particularly women (who still tend to be the primary caregivers) is the need to take time off to deal with family obligations—from prenatal visits to caring for a sick child or family member to daycare pickups and parent-teacher conferences. Yet many caregivers are reluctant to ask for flexible schedules or other accommodations for fear of losing their job or other retaliation. San Francisco has attempted to address this problem with its Family-Friendly Workplace Ordinance, which gives employees the explicit right to request special arrangements, such as a change in start times, part-time and part-year schedules, telecommuting and schedule predictability. Employers don’t have to grant every request, but they do have to provide a reason for refusing to provide flexibility, and can’t retaliate against workers who make such requests. The law, which applies to companies with 20 or more employees, took effect in 2013.

4. Transitional housing for domestic-violence victims

As I’ve reported, the mayor has announced sweeping plans to eliminate funding for transitional-housing programs, shifting those dollars to “rapid rehousing” programs that provide short-term vouchers for homeless Seattleites to rent housing on the private market, with the understanding that once the vouchers run out in three to 12 months, the rent will revert to market rate, currently around $2,000 a month for the average apartment in Seattle. But transitional housing for women fleeing domestic violence is also vulnerable, because the new system gives special priority to people who have been homeless the longest, meaning that abused women who aren’t already plugged into the formal domestic-violence “system” (which is already overburdened) may slip through the cracks.

San Francisco, which is also revamping its homeless-services system but relies less heavily on the federal grants that have accelerated Seattle’s shift to rapid rehousing, has a special grant program dedicated to preventing violence against women and helping female victims of domestic violence; in 2014, the last year for which data is available, the program funded nearly 12,000 bed-hours in transitional and permanent housing programs for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

5. And how about a whole department? 

Seattle has the Seattle Women’s Commission, a volunteer commission that meets once a month and advises the city on policies that impact women. San Francisco has an entire Department on the Status of Women, which focuses on advancing women’s human rights, preventing and addressing violence against women, and promoting gender equity in the workplace. A city’s values and priorities are reflected not just in policy or speeches, but in where it invests its resources, and the city of San Francisco has cemented its commitment to women by creating not just a commission made up of women who volunteer their time, but an entire department with a $7 million annual budget whose entire purpose is promoting women’s equality. Seattle should consider doing the same.

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