Homeless advocates try to take over hotel room

Police evict group that sought to focus on the lack of safe rooms for unhoused people.

When police arrived to the Marriott Grand Marquis hotel this morning, they issued an ultimatum to a group of activists there: Leave room 235 immediately or be arrested.

At 10am, a group of unhoused and formerly unhoused organizers from Poor Magazine, an alternative publication founded in 1996 focusing on the experiences of indigenous, poor, unhoused, and other marginalized groups, entered the hotel with the intention to takeover a room.

The idea was to bring attention to the way the mayor has failed to house thousands of homeless people who are at risk for COVID in safe hotel rooms.

Homeless activists and the Do No Harm Coalition seek to take over a hotel room.

About 20 minutes later, they were forced to vacate the hotel by police. No arrests were made.

According to Lisa Garcia, a co-founder of Poor Magazine, the group entered the hotel and told security staff and the hotel’s manager, Mike Kass, that they were a film crew coming to make a documentary about the impact of COVID-19 on San Francisco’s tourism industry.

Once they arrived in the hotel room, they revealed to the manager that they were unhoused folks with “nowhere to go” and were not going to leave the hotel room or pay for their stay.

“We went here under the concept, because it’s not a lie, of doing a documentary on the impact of COVID-19 on the multi-billion-dollar tourism industry… then we turned around and said ‘we’re not leaving were houseless and we have nowhere else to go’. And he (the hotel manager) immediately said ‘oh really’ ok we’re calling the police… long story short we got escorted down,” said Garcia.

When the manager called, about 10 officers arrived, with “three or four” at the hotel room with Garcia and one other activist, and the rest of the officers in the lobby.

“Why guard empty rooms when there are people on the streets?” said Garcia to police as she and her group were being led out by officers through the garage by the hotel lobby.

After being escorted out, the activists gathered outside the Marriott hotel on 4th St. where they were joined by members of the Do No Harm Coalition holding banners saying “Housing is the Cure.”

Garcia said she thinks it’s necessary to occupy hotel rooms because homeless people, who are disproportionately at risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, have nowhere to shelter in place, presenting a mortal risk that people with homes do not face.

“How do you shelter in place when you don’t have a place?” asked Garcia.

Although the occupation of the rooms was illegal, according to the hotel manager, Garcia said that the dangers homeless people face from COVID-19 has made drastic action necessary.

“There wasn’t an option in our hearts as unhoused and formerly unhoused people, this was a real and desperate measure to shed light on an emergency, one where there’s a solution,” said Garcia.

“He (the hotel manager) said it’s a crime to sit here (in the hotel room) and not leave and I said really? The crime is that people are dying on the street when you have hundreds of empty rooms for people to sleep in,” said Garcia.

Garcia also argued that Mayor London Breed’s defiance of legislation passed by the Board of Supervisors to secure thousands of hotel rooms by the end of April is a greater crime.

The population of unhoused people in SF hotel rooms has decreased from 1081 to 1066 in the past week and there are 229 homeless people on SF who are COVID-19 positive, according to city data from the COVID-19 Alternative Housing Dashboard.

Dr. Rupa Marya, associate professor of medicine at UCSF and faculty director of the Do No Harm Coalition, said she agreed with Garcia that Breed’s flouting of San Francisco law was unacceptable and her failure to house all unhoused people poses a risk to public health.

“The gains being made by the mayor acting so well at the beginning of the pandemic are being lost by how unacceptably she is behaving in the face of the laws passed by the Board of Supervisors to immediately house all unhoused people in San Francisco,” said Marya.

Marya said that it is imperative that unhoused people are able to shelter in place in hotel rooms, as it gives them a private room with a bathroom they don’t have to share, which is key as sharing bathrooms increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“The feces that are being dropped in paper bags in trash cans is not acceptable to the public health of the people, it is not acceptable to their dignity, and it’s putting us all at risk,” said Marya.

Marya also said that UCSF medical professionals in San Francisco would not accept having to heal unhoused people only to put them at risk again by discharging them when they have no ability to shelter in place and have limited resources to protect themselves from COVID-19.

“We are not going to heal people to have them go out to a dysfunctional social structure when and get sick and die on the street,” said Marya.

Garcia said that that people living on the streets would continue to suffer from increased risk of COVID-19 on top of the normal hazards of living on the streets.

“Have you ever been wet on the street? I have. You never really get dry,” said Garcia.

Marriott Grand Marquis General Manager Mike Kass and the SFPD have not responded to my requests for comment.