San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2021
By Mallory Moench
A coalition of more than 50 homeless advocate organizations and a city supervisor is pressing the San Francisco mayor’s office to acquire hotels to house the homeless and move more people into permanent housing.
The coalition wants to seize the moment, with a change in federal policy bringing in more reimbursements for a pandemic-era hotel program and an economic recession emptying even more hotels, to prioritize addressing the homelessness crisis amid other pressing needs and a looming budget deficit.
“We have the opportunity here to do something meaningful in the near term to get more people off the streets,” Joe Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Hospitality House who was also formerly homeless, said during a news conference Wednesday. “It would be unconscionable to not take advantage of that opportunity.”
The city, which purchased two hotels last year with $74 million from a state program, is looking into buying more. At least 70 hotels responded to a city request for information from potential sellers.
“We need more places for people who are homeless to safely get off the streets, and purchasing and converting hotel rooms is one creative way we can make that happen,” Mayor London Breed’s spokesman Andy Lynch said. “The biggest obstacle we face with this idea is identifying the ongoing funding needed for staffing, counselors and other operations, but we’re hopeful we can work with our state and federal partners to make it happen.”
During the pandemic, the city has run a shelter-in-place hotel program that leased rooms for homeless people who are elderly, medically at risk or exposed to or infected with COVID-19. In a letter sent to Mayor London Breed’s Office Wednesday, the coalition pushed the city to also house homeless individuals still on the street who’ve been waiting for permanent housing. It further challenged the city to purchase hotels that it said could be converted into studios at a fraction of the price and time of building new affordable housing. San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safaí urged the same in a recent resolution.
“I’m looking for a more permanent solution,” Safaí said.
The city leased its first shelter-in-place hotel for vulnerable homeless individuals in April and expanded to 25 hotels at its peak. More than 2,250 people have been housed in hotel rooms, with around 1,800 currently sheltered. The city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has pledged that no one in a hotel as of mid-November who participates in a rehousing program will exit onto the street.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would fully reimburse cities for pandemic-related emergency programs, such as testing and shelters like hotels. That was an increase from 75% under the Trump administration and brought in an extra $20 million last fiscal year. This fiscal year, the city projects it will receive $431.2 million from FEMA, with $196.9 million for hotels.
FEMA money helps, but the controller’s office said the hotel program provides some enhanced services that aren’t eligible for reimbursement and serves clients who don’t meet guidelines. Funds also can’t be used to purchase buildings.
Reimbursements do free up more city funds siphoned to support the roughly $20 million-a-month program. The city also could use funds from business tax Prop C to buy hotels. Safaí said as much as $150 million is available.
Krista Gillette, who lives in a hotel, said Wednesday she is in line for permanent housing, but knows many others still on the streets.
“They really do want to be housed,” Gillette said. “They have no desire to try to continue to live in tents or to try to figure out where we’re going.”