San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 19, 2020
By Trisha Thadani
San Francisco’s homeless department said it will slow down a much-criticized plan to move more than 500 homeless people out of city-funded hotel rooms before Christmas, following news that it will get millions of dollars from the state to support the program.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $62 million in funding for counties sheltering vulnerable residents in hotel rooms during the pandemic. It’s unclear how much funding will go toward San Francisco, where more than 2,300 homeless people are staying in hotels.
But word of the slower move-out didn’t appease some members of the Board of Supervisors, who’ve been critical of the plan to shut down the hotels. Supervisors Matt Haney, Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton and Dean Preston said Thursday that they would draft legislation to “stop the rapid dismantling of the hotel program” and instead keep the rooms open as COVID-19 cases surge.
It is unclear how, exactly, they would enforce that or pay for the extended program.
The program costs the city about $15 million to $18 million a month. The current fiscal year budget projects the program will cost about $198 million, and the city expects federal and state funds to reimburse nearly all of that — about $187 million. San Francisco has only been compensated for a fraction of the cost so far, and the city is unsure when it will get the rest.
Last week, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the program needs to be wound down by June and the first seven hotels would close by Dec. 21. Otherwise, she said, the city would risk more fiscal ruin.
The department’s plan is to connect as many residents as possible with housing, but skeptics point to the city’s dearth of housing. While the city still needs to move people out of the hotels with “urgency,” Stewart-Kahn said Wednesday that the extra state support will help keep some hotels open longer, but she did not provide a timeline.
Details of the supervisors’ legislation to halt the end of the program were still being worked out. It is currently being drafted, and the supervisors intend to introduce it in early December.
“Closing the (shelter-in-place) hotels without a clear plan for where each person will go risks undoing all of the work that the city has done to move hundreds of vulnerable people off of the streets and protect them from exposure,” Ronen said.
The supervisors pointed to possible funding sources for the program, which include excess money from a state education fund, money from a business tax for homeless services and possible federal stimulus funding. But it is unclear how exactly they would pay for it if the program were extended beyond the current fiscal year — especially if the Federal Emergency Management Agency funding ran out.
City Controller Ben Rosenfield said he is not sure how long the city can rely on the FEMA reimbursement. While he is more optimistic that the reimbursements will continue under the incoming Biden administration, he warned that the city could still lose the support with short notice.
San Francisco recently closed a massive $1.5 billion budget deficit largely caused by the pandemic, and then learned last week that it was facing another $116 million hole. The Board of Supervisors did not add any money into the current budget for the hotel program, despite calling for the program to be expanded by several thousand rooms.
The budget for the next fiscal year does not include any funding for the hotel program.
Shawn Landrum-Teppish, who lives in a Civic Center hotel that was scheduled to close by the end of the month, has been nervous about where she will go next. The day after The Chronicle wrote about her earlier this month, she said she was given an appointment to see a room in the Mission.
When she saw the unit, she clutched her heart and started to cry at the thought that the tiny, sun-soaked room could finally be hers after years of living in a tent in San Francisco.
“Oh, my god!” she exclaimed, as she walked inside. “It’s so cute.”
The floor slanted, the communal bathroom stank, and a neighbor was blasting a raucous show that carried through the hallway. Still, as small and imperfect as the room was, Landrum-Teppish started to imagine how she could fill the space with artwork and plants. But the excitement faded a few minutes later after she learned she’d need to wait weeks for a procedural background and credit check.
It would be at least a month before she could move in, she was told.
“This isn’t the stuff they tell you,” Landrum-Teppish said as she started to cry on Valencia Street. “I’m ready to move in. I’ve already packed my stuff.”
Since then, Landrum-Teppish said she has felt a little more optimistic. She said a housing coordinator has connected her with a few other apartments she liked, just in case the other ones fall through. Now she is waiting to hear if and when she can move in.
Many hotel residents faced a similar crush of uncertainty over the past few weeks after they learned of imminent hotel closures. Sam Dennison, co-director of Tenderloin nonprofit Faithful Fools, said some people wouldn’t engage with case workers to find housing because “they felt like it was futile.”
But now, with a little more time granted by the extra state funding, Dennison saiid he hopes the homeless department can convince residents they won’t be left out on the streets.
Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, which runs a hotel for homeless youth that was scheduled to close by the end of the year, was relieved to learn from a reporter Wednesday that the department is slowing down its plan to shut down the first phase of hotels by year’s end.
She is still concerned about where residents would go given the city’s few permanent options for homeless youth, but is glad they can now spend a little more time looking.
“We can breathe,” she said. “Now let’s work really hard on a collaborative plan.”