San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 28, 2020
By Trisha Thadani
San Francisco will begin gradually moving more than 500 homeless people out of hotel rooms Monday, but there’s still no clear plan on where they will live next.
Over the next few weeks, case managers will begin working with people who live in seven different hotels to figure out their options, according to the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. But word that several hotels are closing by the end of the year — without a detailed plan to house them — has prompted fear and frustration among advocates, city supervisors and hotel residents, who are concerned that many will end up back in shelters or on the streets.
That could be a disaster for San Francisco, which is already grappling with a swelling homeless population as the pandemic disrupts services and pushes more people into poverty. There are more than 8,000 homeless people in the city, including about 2,400 currently living in the hotels.
The first phase of closures — which will conclude at the end of December — comes as dramatically more homeless people die in San Francisco compared to last year and overdoses skyrocket.
The department says it has connected 27 people who were living in the hotels to a local rent subsidy program. Moving forward, Deborah Bouck, a spokesperson for the department, said the plan is to connect all residents with some kind of housing or “other programs,” like one-way bus tickets to anywhere in the country where they can live with friends or family.
Bouck said Tuesday that no one would be going from the hotels into shelters and sanctioned tent sites — despite the fact that the department told The Chronicle last month that some people would.
Still, many worry about a return to the early days of the pandemic, when clusters of people had few other choices but to pitch tents on the sidewalk — a sight so frustrating that groups of residents, mostly in the Tenderloin, sued the city.
“I’m in limbo,” said Shawn Landrum-Teppish, 46, who has been living in a hotel since April. She said she was told Friday that her hotel will close by the end of December. “I’m kind of in shock at the moment.”
Landrum-Teppish said she has been waiting for years to get into a housing unit, and being in a hotel has given her the most stability and privacy she’s had in a while. She feels cautiously optimistic that she will finally get into a housing unit after moving out of the hotel.
She shudders at the idea of going back to a group shelter, and said she would rather just go back to a tent in Golden Gate Park.
“I’m just ready to get on with my life,” she said from her hotel room in Civic Center on Tuesday. “I don’t like sitting and waiting for everyone else to figure out my life for me.”
San Francisco currently has leased 2,600 hotel rooms for its most vulnerable. As of Wednesday, 2,406 people were living in 2,088 rooms, with roommates or their families. The homelessness department said that the program, which costs about $260 per room per night, is no longer financially feasible, and that it will gradually wind down the program by the end of June. The program was always meant to be temporary.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse San Francisco for up to 75% of the costs, but it is unclear whether the city has received any of that money. 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. The department didn’t respond to a question about how much it has spent in total on the program, which began in April, but some months cost $15 million to $18 million.
Mayor London Breed and the homelessness department have committed to moving hotel residents into some kind of housing, which could include rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing units, housing vouchers or one-way, city-funded bus tickets.
Last month, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the department, told The Chronicle that some people might also end up in group shelters or sanctioned tent sites. But then on Tuesday, the department reversed itself and said that the city does not plan to send anyone from the hotels into group shelters or sanctioned tent sites.
Bouck said that all guests — most of whom are more vulnerable to complications if they get the coronavirus — will work with “care coordinators on their transition plan and help them identify their next steps to connect to stable housing and other support services based on what is available and client choice.”
But it is unclear how the department will make good on that promise, considering San Francisco’s high cost of living and dearth of affordable and permanent supportive housing. Last month, Stewart-Kahn said there are about 500 vacant, permanent supportive-housing units — but most of them already have someone ready to move in or are unavailable for other reasons.
The city is working on increasing its housing stock. Breed announced a homelessness recovery plan in July, which promised to buy or lease 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing over the next two years. That would be the city’s largest increase in such housing in 20 years.
Meanwhile, San Francisco received a $29 million grant from the state’s Homekey fund Friday to buy the Hotel Diva near Union Square and convert it to 134 permanent housing units with supportive services. It’s the city’s second grant from the fund to buy a hotel.
Bouck said the homelessness department is “pursuing other housing with local funds and through Homekey,” she said. But there are “challenges” around funding and ongoing costs, she said.
The approved city budget does not include new funding to buy hotels. Instead, the city is hoping to get money from a bond and tax measure on the November ballot as well as state funds to help buy more.
Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the bulk of the city’s homeless population, said closing these hotel sites without a “clear, effective transition plan could be destabilizing and lead to more old and sick people ending up back out on our streets and sidewalks.”
Haney, along with Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton and Dean Preston, called for a hearing on the issue next month and also sent a letter to the department Tuesday demanding more answers on the plan to move people out of the hotels.
The plan to rehouse the 2,400 or so people currently in the hotels “is an admirable and exciting opportunity to address homelessness in the city at a scale we have never seen before,” the letter said. “But as it stands, the plan lacks any detail that gives us confidence the plan will succeed.”
Those living in the hotels — many of whom are seniors and have underlying health conditions — are considered vulnerable to succumbing to the coronavirus.
Chucky Torres, 41, was devastated to learn Tuesday that the hotel she is living in is part of the first wave of closures. Living in the hotel has made a great difference for her since she has a medical condition that makes it hard for her to share a bathroom and space with others.
“That sucks,”she said. “I don’t know how this is going to go down, but I’m praying I get a (housing) spot.”
Dr. Joshua Bamberger, a clinical professor in family community medicine at UCSF, said he has seen how the hotels have helped improve the health of many of the residents.
He is worried what is going to happen next for many of his clients.
“There is ample data to show that frail and elderly people’s health is not maintained when they are living in tent, street or shelter,” he said. “Having them back on the street would be a tragedy.”