San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 2021
By Mallory Moench
In the latest push to keep people off San Francisco’s streets, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an emergency ordinance to move 560 more homeless people into shelter-in-place hotels over the next two months.
The ordinance, which passed at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, simply formalizes a plan already under way.
It will extend the federally reimbursed program that leases hotel rooms for around 2,000 vulnerable homeless individuals, fill even more hotel rooms and make available permanent housing for those who moved into hotels before Nov. 15 last year and who participate in a rehousing program, although people may turn it down if they find it less appealing than their current situation.
“I believe it will save lives,” Supervisor Matt Haney said about Tuesday’s legislation. “This will mean we have ways to get people off the streets and inside at a time when COVID is still very much here, very few homeless people have been vaccinated and the risks are huge.”
San Francisco launched a mobile program last month to start vaccinating some of its 17,000 homeless people, although availability is dependent on vaccine supply, the Department of Public Health said.
The shelter-in-place hotel program, started last year to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by getting vulnerable homeless individuals out of congregate shelters and off the streets, faced an uncertain future at the end of last year. With more federal reimbursements flooding city coffers under the new administration, Haney said the city is starting intakes again.
The city’s COVID Command Center said in a statement Monday that it welcomed the opportunity to continue protecting thousands of vulnerable people in hotels during the pandemic. While the new plan is to expand to hundreds more, the city said the total number may be slightly lower depending on how many people are referred by hospital and street outreach partners, the pace of housing and other exits and the need to clean or repair rooms during turnover.
Meanwhile, supervisors and advocates are pushing the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to also prioritize permanently housing more than 600 people still on the streets who were eligible before the pandemic, but deprioritized compared with hotel residents.
“Just because you’ve been put in a shelter-in-place hotel doesn’t mean you should jump the line for permanent supportive housing,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who sponsored a resolution urging the city to buy more hotels. “We should be focused on working with providers out there and the people who have the most immediate needs by offering them supportive housing.”
Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the homelessness department, told supervisors last week that the city currently has 328 vacant housing units, with 629 more ready soon. She said that the current “trade-off” is that under the board’s ordinance, the city needs to ensure there are still enough units for shelter-in-place hotel residents. The city has pledged not to kick anyone out of hotels who moved in before Nov. 15, 2020, and participates in a rehousing program.
But around 70% of residents offered permanent supportive housing at the refurbished 232-unit Granada Hotel, purchased with $45 million from the state last year, turned down spots, Stewart-Kahn said. She added that it was “understandable,” since shelter-in-place hotels have private bathrooms and three meals a day, while the Granada has communal bathrooms and charges 30% of a resident’s income as rent.
If hotel residents refuse spots, the city can turn to others who are eligible, she said.
Of the 2,100-plus people who’ve stayed in hotels, 145 have been rehoused, including 96 in permanent supportive housing, according to city data. Of the remaining 309 who exited, 105 left voluntarily for various reasons, 44 were asked to leave because they didn’t comply with policies and 26 died. Others ended up in emergency shelters, nursing homes, hospitals or jail.
The city has backfilled 71% of those vacated spots. Currently, there are nearly 1,700 guests.
According to federal guidelines, priority is given to individuals who are older than 65, infected with or exposed to COVID-19, or have high-risk medical conditions — a hodgepodge category that includes smoking but not asthma. Rooms will also be open to a much broader range of people, including homeless individuals living in city shelters or released from jail.
Marlin Tanner, 70, said he landed in a shelter-in-place hotel after being admitted to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital as the victim of a drive-by shooting while living in his car in Hunters Point. Tanner said he has diabetes, glaucoma and lower back pain.
“I was ecstatic, especially when I came down here and came in the room and it was just me,” Tanner said.
The relief of having his own space with a bathroom and mini-fridge is tempered by the uncertainty of not knowing how long he can stay. Tanner submitted his documents to get permanent housing three weeks ago, but hadn’t been offered a placement yet. He dreams of having a one-bedroom apartment with a yard so he can get a dog.
Recent research shows that hotels were an effective public health response during the pandemic. Four city-run hotels where more than 1,000 homeless and other individuals isolated or quarantined reduced the strain on hospitals from March to May last year, a study published Tuesday by the Department of Public Health, UCSF and San Francisco General researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported.
The similar shelter-in-place hotel program faced a rocky history. The city tried to wind down the program at the end of last year, to the vehement opposition of supervisors, with uncertainty about how long the Federal Emergency Management Agency would continue to reimburse 75% of its eligible costs. The Biden administration announced earlier this year that FEMA would reimburse eligible costs up to 100% until October, part of the city’s surprising surplus this fiscal year.
Still, 15% of the program’s costs — primarily care coordination — are not eligible for reimbursement, the controller’s office said. The city has also placed people in hotels who don’t fall under FEMA guidelines, such as anyone between 60 and 65 years old and people under 60 who have certain medical and mental health conditions and are working with a caseworker.
The city has already allocated $22.8 million from other sources to fill the program’s funding gap.