S.F. releases most detailed plan yet for homeless living in hotels. Here’s what’s at stake

San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 5, 2020

By Trish Thadani

Over the next year, San Francisco’s homeless department says it will “end homelessness” for 2,300 people living in city-funded hotels. It’s a costly, ambitious plan that could potentially make a dent in the city’s unrelenting homeless crisis, if it succeeds.

But if the department falls short, hundreds of people with medical issues, mental illnesses and drug addiction could wind up back on the streets, and unravel the progress they might have made while living indoors the past few months.

“This is a very difficult balancing act that we’re trying to attempt,” said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. She said the department needs to take care of people in the hotels, while also expanding resources for the many still on the streets.

On Friday, the department released its most detailed proposal yet on how it will gradually wind down the hotel program and move people into longer-term housing. According to the proposal, all of the city’s 25 hotels will close by November. That’s a longer timeline than the department’s initial plan to close the hotels by June.

The report also details the city’s housing inventory and rent vouchers — and what it still needs to meet the demand.

The city has leased 25 hotels for the homeless during the pandemic, spending between $15 million and $18 million a month on the program. The city expects the majority of the costs to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it’s unclear when the FEMA funding will run out.

The department said it needed to begin winding down the program because it is not financially sustainable without the FEMA funding. The city controller has warned that the reimbursement could run out with short notice.

Service providers and supervisors have sharply criticized the department over the past few months for what they said was a hasty wind-down that would leave many people without stable housing. Following the backlash — as well as an extra $10 million in state assistance — the department took a step back and revised their proposal.

According to the proposal, the first 476 people will be gradually moved out of seven hotels by the end of March. Some residents will be placed into housing beginning in January. The department will consolidate those still waiting for a housing placement into other hotels.

But a look at San Francisco’s available housing options shows the challenges ahead.

There are about 520 permanent supportive housing units set aside for the first phase of closures — but not all are available, or even funded. That funding depends on the Board of Supervisors approving a spending plan that taps the city’s Proposition C funds, a business tax that was passed in 2018.

Stewart-Kahn said it’s essential that the department can use the Prop. C money to pay for more permanent supportive housing and rental vouchers. Without that money, she said, the department will struggle to offer all hotel residents long-term housing.

The Our City Our Home committee — which oversees the Prop. C funds — will make recommendations to the board on how to spend the money. The Board of Supervisors will then vote on the spending plan this month.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness and a member of the Prop. C advisory committee, said there is “a lot of positive stuff” in the report, and she is pleased the department listened to the community and extended the timeline for the closures.

But, she said, she is worried the plan is over-reliant on Prop. C funds.

If the department uses the Prop. C fund as outlined in the report, she said it would not leave enough money to address the hundreds — maybe thousands — of people who are still living on the streets.

She said she would rather the city use Prop. C funds to be able to get “another couple hundred people off the streets” by, for example, buying more hotels. The city has bought two hotels so far, which it plans to turn into permanent supportive housing.

Sara Shortt, director of policy and organizing at the Community Housing Partnership, said the new plan was a “vast improvement” from the previous one and she is glad the city will have more time to figure out where to place people.

“However, the information about housing options for residents still leaves a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

As San Francisco slows down the closures, officials in Alameda County are facing criticism for their plan to close most hotels for the homeless by February.

Several supervisors in San Francisco also proposed legislation this week that would halt the wind-down process, unless FEMA provides written notification that it would stop providing funding to the city.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said she is glad “the mayor and her staff finally realize that it makes no sense to close the (shelter-in-place) hotels in the middle of the worst COVID surge during the dead of winter.”

But Ronen said she still wanted more details to ensure that “no one currently living in the hotels is returned to the street and that there continues to be places for people to go that are living on the streets today.”

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