S.F. must continue moving homeless people into some hotel rooms, supes say

San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 15, 2020

By Trisha Thadani

As San Francisco winds down its homeless hotel program, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation Tuesday ordering the city to continue moving people off the streets and into some empty rooms for at least the next 60 days.

More than 2,300 homeless people currently live in city-funded hotel rooms, where many have their own beds, bathrooms and three meals a day for the first time in years. But there are still hundreds — maybe thousands — of people sleeping outside, as San Francisco experiences a massive COVID-19 surge amid cold, wet winter weather.

The point of the legislation is to provide those on the streets, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, with an opportunity to temporarily come inside. But unlike those who moved into the hotels before November, the new residents will not be guaranteed other long-term housing after their hotels shut down.

That means those who move into the hotels following the new legislation could later end up back outside, in shelters or in city-run sanctioned tent sites if no other housing is available. The legislation expires after 60 days, but the board may extend it.

Mayor London Breed has 10 days to sign the legislation, which the board passed with a veto-proof majority.

“The point is that they get a reprieve ... during the time that they are in the hotel, and get a break from the cold and the hell that it is to live on the street,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, which was written by Supervisor Matt Haney.

The new ordinance comes as COVID-19 cases among the homeless population spike. According to city data, 43 homeless people have been diagnosed with the virus so far in December. That compares to 43 in all of November, and eight cases in October.

It is also the latest update in an anxiety-riddled few months for many living in the city’s hotel rooms as the department gradually closes all 25 sites by the end of next year.

About 500 hotel residents were told this fall that they would need to move out by the end of the year. But after backlash and about $10 million in state assistance, the department pushed the first closures until the end of March.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to reimburse the city for about 75% of the program’s expenses, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said it must begin winding down the program because it’s worried the federal government will halt funding with short notice.

Last week, Breed wrote a letter to FEMA and asked the agency to give the city more notice for when the funding would end. She said 30 days is not adequate because securing long-term housing for people “is anticipated to take well in excess of six months to complete.”

The department said it will connect everyone currently living in the hotels with longer-term housing, although it’s unclear how it will achieve that promise in the city’s tight housing market.

The new legislation says that for every 10 people in the hotels provided other housing options, six hotel rooms must be kept open as temporary shelter for those still on the streets. The options offered to current hotel residents include permanent supportive housing, rental vouchers or a bus ticket to go live with family members or friends anywhere in the country.

“I believe we will have to have further conversation as this unfolds... but I think this is a good path forward for the next 60 days,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who originally voted against the legislation in committee but helped write several amendments that passed unanimously Tuesday.

The board has not allocated any additional funding to support the extended program, which costs about $15 million to $18 million a month without help from FEMA. But Haney said he expects the committee that oversees money collected from a 2018 homeless tax to help fund the extension.

In the backdrop is a projected $653.2 million city budget deficit over the next two fiscal years, which will likely force layoffs and service cuts as COVID-19 continues to ravage the San Francisco’s economy.

The department did not comment on how many people it could currently move into empty hotel rooms.

Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the city’s homeless department, said in a statement that she and the mayor are “committed to supporting as many of our most vulnerable residents as possible during these challenging times.”

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