San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 26, 2020
By Trisha Thadani
San Francisco’s program to house the homeless in hotels is stretching its already strapped budget, with monthly costs topping $18 million, although the federal government is expected to pay for 75% of it.
On Friday, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the homeless services department, said people will gradually start transitioning out of rooms immediately, and some hotels will stop accepting new guests at some point in November. She said all the hotel residents will move to other places by June. While some might end up in permanent supportive housing, others might go to temporary shelter beds or sanctioned tent encampments.
The hotel program, which began in April in response to the pandemic, was always meant to be temporary.
The goal is to move everyone into housing, the department said. But the exact path toward a permanent home is unclear for many of the 2,340 hotel residents, and the next steps in San Francisco’s tight housing market for each person are expected to vary.
“The city cannot afford to keep the shelter-in-place hotels open indefinitely,” Stewart-Kahn told The Chronicle in an interview. San Francisco has not yet been reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and it’s not clear when it will be.
At about $260 a night per room, the city is spending nearly $8,000 per person per month — more than twice the median rent of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.
Over the next several months, Stewart-Kahn said, hotel residents will gradually be connected to other options: shelter beds, empty lots sanctioned for tent encampments, housing vouchers, permanent supportive housing or a city-funded bus ticket to anywhere in the country where they have a place to stay.
“We will pull every single lever that is available to us,” Stewart-Kahn said.
The city has leased 28 entire hotels over the past few months. It procured its last hotel last week and has no plans to pursue more, according to the department.
San Francisco has 2,487 shelter-in-place hotel rooms, 2,340 of which are being used by people who would otherwise be out on the streets or in shelters. The number of hotel rooms is far short of a mandate passed by the Board of Supervisors this summer, which said the city must have more than 8,000 hotel rooms by now.
Pre-pandemic, the city counted more than 8,000 homeless people — though that number is expected to increase as more people are pushed toward poverty due to the economic woes caused by the virus.
Mayor London Breed said that she and her departments were moving as fast as logistically — and financially — possible to move people indoors.
It’s far cheaper to house people in shelters than hotel rooms. For comparison, it costs about $70 to $100 for a Navigation Center bed. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the city had to move quickly and find places where people could have their own space and social distance.
As the department lays out its tentative timeline for moving people out of the hotels, COVID-19 still poses a major threat to the city’s homeless who do not have a safe place to distance from others.
The decision to stop leasing hotel rooms will likely rankle some members of the Board of Supervisors, who have been sparring with the mayor’s office and the homeless department for months over the fact that the mayor did not lease more hotel rooms.
Supervisor Matt Haney, who oversees a district with many of these shelter-in-place hotels, said the department is phasing out the hotels “without good reason.”
“They are making the assumption that the federal government is going to stop the reimbursements,” he said. “If they phase out the hotels, they are going to guarantee that large numbers of people are going to be on our streets and the sidewalks with no options.”
Breed announced the homelessness recovery plan in July, which promised to buy or lease 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing over the next two years — the city’s largest increase in 20 years.
But right now, Stewart-Kahn said there are only about 500 vacant permanent supportive housing units, most of which already have someone ready to move in or are unavailable for other reasons.
“Unfortunately, we are doing this with some challenges in the mix,” Stewart-Kahn said of the plan to move people out of the hotels. “Today there is not enough permanent supportive housing for how many people we feel should go into it.”
But, she said, she is hopeful that over the next few months, the city will be able to work with the residents in the hotels — and those still out on the streets — to find a solution.
“It is an incredibly high bar that we’ve set for ourselves as a city, at the speed that it needs to happen and the amount of people that we need to serve,” she said. But “it’s the only path that makes sense in front of us.”