San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 22, 2021
By Trisha Thadani
President Biden signed an executive order Thursday that said certain kinds of emergency housing for the homeless — such as the hotels that San Francisco has leased during the pandemic — will be 100% reimbursed by the federal government until September.
That’s a change from the Trump administration, which said it would only pay for 75% of the cost, leaving the city on the hook for potentially millions of dollars every month. The monthly program costs range from $15 million to $18 million.
Biden’s new order could offer a great deal of reassurance for San Francisco, which is currently sheltering more than 2,200 homeless people in about 25 hotels. But many questions still remain.
The hotel rooms were mentioned within a larger executive order Thursday about reimbursing cities for pandemic-related emergency programs. According to the order, other programs like child-care facilities, domestic violence shelters and costs for personal protective equipment will also be eligible for 100% reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
City Controller Ben Rosenfield said he and his team are still parsing through the details of the order, and that he’s waiting for more detailed guidance from FEMA before making any declarations about how the program will be affected.
One of his biggest questions is whether the order is retroactive. If that’s the case, San Francisco could potentially get millions of dollars back into its coffers. If so, some of the money would be earmarked for specific uses, while another chunk would likely go back in to the general fund.
Any additional amount in San Francisco’s general fund would be a positive development for the city, as it grapples with a multi-million deficit caused by the pandemic.
When it comes to the hotel program, Rosenfield said, “I think it’s safe to say it will apply from now until September, for those that are eligible.” Rosenfield said about 85% of the hotel guests are likely eligible for reimbursement, though it was unclear Friday whether the Biden administration changed the definition of who qualifies.
Despite the uncertainty, Biden’s executive order was welcome news for San Francisco officials Thursday. The previous administration never made clear when the funding would end, leaving officials worried about a sudden loss of funding with short notice.
San Francisco’s homeless department originally planned to begin winding down the program last year, concerned the FEMA funding would suddenly end. If that happened, officials worried the city would suddenly be on the hook for the pricey program and have to scramble to move homeless people out of the rooms.
In December, FEMA said it would continue reimbursing the program “through the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.” But the federal government did not clarify how it would define the end of the pandemic.
Advocates say the hotel rooms have helped improve the mental and physical health of some sick and elderly people, who were previously living on the streets.
Mayor London Breed previously said that all hotel residents would be offered some kind of stable housing when they had to move out, without providing exact details on where they would go.
Over the past few months, the department has been gradually moving people out of the hotels when another option is available, and moving others into the empty rooms.
According to city data, 313 people have moved out of the hotels as of Friday. Eighty-nine of those people received some kind of housing assistance, like a permanent supportive housing unit or a rent voucher.
Thirty people were moved to temporary shelter. A spokeswoman for the The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said “some people expressed a preference” for a group shelter and “some were moved because it was in their medical best interest to be in” a group setting.
Meanwhile, 14 people were placed into an institutional setting, like a hospital, jail, drug treatment program or long term care facility. Seventeen people died. Data was not available for the remaining 163 people.
It’s unclear whether the new order will prompt city officials to lease more hotels. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing declined to comment until it knew more about what impact the order would have on the program.
Still, on Thursday, Supervisor Hillary Ronen — who has advocated to expand the program — tweeted that the executive order was “fantastic.”
“Now we can open more spots for people experiencing homelessness to stay safe during the rest of this pandemic,” she said.