S.F. will not close any hotels for the homeless this year. But uncertainty is still ahead in 2021

San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 1, 2020

By Trisha Thadani


San Francisco has pulled back on a plan to close hotels for the homeless this month, but the news has done little to curb the uncertainty that many residents still face in 2021.


The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing originally planned to close seven hotels — where about 500 people live — by Dec. 21. But after receiving about $10 million in state assistance, the department said in a tweet and an internal email this weekend that it would extend that timeline. But it’s unclear by how much.


The department promised it will connect all hotel residents with housing, however, many have been skeptical of that plan given the city’s dearth of affordable options. The department told The Chronicle on Tuesday that it intends to unveil a more detailed plan this week, but it could not immediately share the details.


More than 2,300 people live in the hotels, and hundreds — maybe thousands — more people are still sleeping on San Francisco’s streets as the temperature drops and COVID-19 cases surge.


“While all of this is still evolving, we want to confirm that with the flexibility provided by this additional funding, no (shelter-in-place) hotels will need to close in 2020, providing us at least a 30-day extension,” Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the department, said in a staff email that was later shared with The Chronicle.


Still, Supervisors Matt Haney, Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston planned to introduce legislation Tuesday that would “prohibit” the city from moving people out of the hotels unless they find other housing, or if the Federal Emergency Management Agency notifies the city that it will stop reimbursing the program.


The program costs between $15 million and $18 million a month. FEMA plans to reimburse the city for most of it, but the city must reapply for the funding each month. The department said it is worried the FEMA funding will run out with short notice, and therefore must gradually wind down the program by June.


The department has promised that every hotel resident would be matched with a permanent supportive housing unit, rent voucher or a bus ticket to connect with friends or family that they can live with instead. It has said that no residents will go back out to the streets or to a shelter.


Despite the assurances, several hotel residents said they’re still in the dark about the city’s plans.


Chucky Torres, who lives in a hotel originally scheduled to close in December, has been extremely stressed about where she’ll live next. She learned through a reporter Tuesday that the department does not plan to close any hotels by the end of the year.


While Torres — who lived in a Navigation Center shelter before moving into a hotel in April — said that the pause was a bit of a relief, she was still worried about the future.


Torres said that she has been calling her case manager every day, but has not heard back for weeks. In the meantime, she said, she has been updating her resume and trying to figure out how to get a job.


“When I have somewhere to live and have a job, it gives me something to look forward to,” she said.


According to the department, 336 permanent supportive units were available as of November. The city plans to invest in 1,500 new units over the next two years. It’s also working on expanding other options, like rent-subsidy programs.


Haney, who spearheaded the legislation, said the department’s pause is “welcomed but it’s nowhere near enough to ensure we don’t end up with more people on the streets.”


“They still intend to close the SIP (shelter in place) hotels, one of the most necessary and cost-effective health responses during this pandemic, without an adequate plan or placements, during a massive surge as the cold comes in,” he said. “That’s not acceptable.”


The legislation directs San Francisco to keep all hotel rooms open until the city’s shelter-in-place order is rescinded. If people move into other stable housing options, the city must then fill that room with someone else who is homeless. The department would also have to release a weekly report on how many people have been assessed for housing and where they have moved.


There was no extra funding identified for the program in the legislation, and it’s unclear how the board would enforce it if passed. At a news conference last week, the supervisors pointed to possible funding sources, which included excess money from a state education fund, money from a business tax for homeless services and possible federal stimulus funding.


The board also did not add any money to the current budget for the hotel program, despite calling for the program to be expanded by several thousand rooms.


As they wait for more details from the department, Sara Shortt, director of policy and community organizing at the Community Housing Partnership, said the stress among residents and staff is “palpable.”


“Until residents get direct communication notifying them that they will continue to be able to live in the hotels until they are adequately housed, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that,” she said.


Torres, the shelter resident, said she’s trying to remain hopeful.


“I’m going to move into a nice little spot, out of the Tenderloin,” she said. “And I have a high expectation and a good feeling that my life is going to do a 180 in a minute, and come 2021, I’m going to be living a little better.”

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