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Amid a COVID-19 outbreak in San Francisco in April 2020, activists called on Mayor London Breed to use vacant hotels to house homeless people. (AP) Amid a COVID-19 outbreak in San Francisco in April 2020, activists called on Mayor London Breed to use vacant hotels to house homeless people. (AP)

Amid a COVID-19 outbreak in San Francisco in April 2020, activists called on Mayor London Breed to use vacant hotels to house homeless people. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 16, 2021

No, federal relief dollars for San Francisco won’t pay for pot, alcohol for homeless

If Your Time is short

  • San Francisco spent about $1,500 per month on physician-prescribed alcohol for some homeless people it kept isolated in hotels during the pandemic.

  • The program is slated to end in June.

  • No tax dollars were ever spent on marijuana.

The Democrats and President Joe Biden are making a full court press to tell Americans about the many ways their COVID-19 relief package will put money in their pockets.

Republicans are working just as hard to paint the $1.9 trillion law as a colossal waste of government funds.

"Nancy Pelosi’s Bay Area Bailout included $600 million for San Francisco, part of which goes to cover the tab for free alcohol and marijuana for the homeless," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted March 14. "I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this bailout is too costly, corrupt, and liberal."

Does the federal relief package really pay for San Francisco to provide free weed and booze for the homeless?

Let’s sort this out.

City officials say the American Rescue Plan Act — which contains $360 billion in aid to state and local governments — will send San Francisco about $600 million over the next two years. The city can decide how to spend the money to help recover from damage wrought by the pandemic. 

McCarthy mangled the facts in tying the relief package to what’s taking place with people — not just homeless people — whom the city puts up in hotels to isolate them when they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.

Isolating people in the spring

After a COVID-19 outbreak at a San Francisco homeless shelter in April 2020, the city moved to isolate more homeless people in hotels. The isolation and quarantine program grew to include people who weren’t homeless but who lived in cramped quarters where it was impossible to stay away from others. 

In May, word spread that staff were providing some of these people with marijuana and alcohol. A local activist went on Twitter to call out the practice, and the city public health department defended itself.

"These harm-reduction based practices, which are not unique to San Francisco, and are not paid for with taxpayer money, help guests successfully complete isolation and quarantine and have significant individual and public health benefits in the COVID-19 pandemic," the department tweeted May 5, 2020.

A flawed news report miscast a statement from the health department as indicating that it provided marijuana.

Part of the confusion was that the city’s practices involving alcohol were separate from those involving marijuana. 

Let’s look at the alcohol policy first.

Featured Fact-check

Jenna Lane, a spokeswoman for the city health department, told us that the key to isolating people during a pandemic is to keep them in their rooms. For homeless people with severe alcoholism, going cold turkey was a health risk.

"Medical providers prescribed limited amounts of alcohol to be served with a meal to just those guests who would otherwise go into alcohol withdrawal," Lane said. "Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal."

Some alcoholics got vodka, some got beer. Lane said these people represented a small fraction of the homeless whom the city took care of in its isolation and quarantine program. City staff supported everyone who was in recovery and helped them stay substance-free.

As of the time of this fact-check, there were 23 people in isolation and quarantine. San Francisco provides alcohol only in the isolation and quarantine program.

Until May 4, 2020, the city relied on private donations to pay for the vodka and beer for residents. In the ensuing 10 months, the city spent $14,940 in public funds to provide alcohol, or about $1,500 each month.

Lane said the city never paid for marijuana. 

Some people in the city’s isolation program used marijuana while quarantining in a city-provided hotel room. California allows personal use of marijuana.

 These residents paid for the drug themselves. 

"If someone had a prescription for medical cannabis, staff might receive prescription deliveries at the front entrance of the hotel," Lane said. "They would accept it on behalf of a guest. But no staff facilitated recreational purchases."

In November, the city announced measures to relocate about 2,300 people who were then staying in hotels. The goal was to end the hotel program by the end of June 2021.

Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told us, "There are no federal funds being used for these purposes."

We reached out to McCarthy’s office and did not hear back.

Our ruling

McCarthy said the federal relief package has "$600 million for San Francisco, part of which goes to cover the tab for free alcohol and marijuana for the homeless."

Since May 2020, San Francisco has spent about $1,500 of public money each month to provide medically prescribed alcohol to people with severe alcoholism in COVID-19 isolation and quarantine sites for homeless people. No federal money has been allotted to this program, which is due to end in June.

The city does not provide marijuana to people at quarantine sites.

McCarthy’s claim misrepresented what’s in the federal relief package. 

We rate this claim False.

CORRECTION, March 16, 10:21 p.m.: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect amount for San Francisco's monthly spending on alcohol. The rating is not changed.

Our Sources

Kevin McCarthy, tweet, March 14, 2021

San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak at MSC South Homeless Shelter, April 10, 2020

San Francisco Department of Public Health, tweet, May 5, 2020

San Francisco Department of Public Health, statement, May 1, 2020

City of San Francisco, COVID-19 update, May 6, 2020

City of San Francisco, COVID-19 dashboard: Alternative shelter program, accessed March 16, 2021

JAMA Network, Assessment of a Hotel-Based COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine Strategy for Persons Experiencing Homelessness, March 2, 2021

Turning Point USA, Facebook, May 8, 2020

San Francisco Human Services Agency, City Begins Rehousing Vulnerable Homeless Moved into Hotels Due to COVID-19, Nov 10, 2020

SFGate, SF confirms it's giving drugs to homeless in hotels in 'limited quantities', May 7, 2020

Sacramento Bee, San Francisco gives alcohol and marijuana to homeless addicts on lockdown in hotels, May 7, 2020

USA Today, Fact check: San Francisco providing drugs, alcohol to quarantining homeless but not on taxpayers' dime, May 12, 2020

Email exchange, Drew Hammill, press secretary, Office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, March 15, 2021

Interview, Jenna Lane, spokeswoman, San Francisco Department of Public Health, March 15, 2021

 

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No, federal relief dollars for San Francisco won’t pay for pot, alcohol for homeless

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