Feds agree to continue funding for shelter-in-place hotels

Gov. Newsom tells cities FEMA will reimburse for Project Roomkey through end of pandemic

Federal dollars will continue to pay for emergency shelter-in-place hotels for San Francisco’s unhoused through the end of the pandemic, officials confirmed Friday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a letter to cities and counties Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized reimbursement for the state’s Project Roomkey program, which made it possible for The City to house those who had no way to shelter-in-place or quarantine in hotels.

It was previously unclear how long FEMA would cover 75 percent of costs associated with the program, which has cost $512 million since the pandemic, according to Newsom.

“Today’s welcome news from FEMA means we will have that sustained federal commitment through the COVID emergency, as you ultimately work to transition clients into stable housing,” Newsom wrote. “This effort is key in reducing community transmission and addressing hospital surge by providing a safe shelter for those who test positive, who are exposed to COVID-19, or who are at high risk for medical complications were they to become infected, including seniors and those with chronic health conditions.”

More than 2,300 homeless people or households were moved into the leased rooms in San Francisco, at a cost of $179 million this fiscal year. All but $3 million of the cost is expected to be reimbursed by FEMA or state funding, the Examiner previously reported.

Citing funding instability, San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing originally planned to move people out of the hotel rooms into supportive housing, shelters, or outdoor sleeping sites by June 2021. The City faces a more than $650 million deficit over the next two fiscal years.

“If we wait until FEMA cuts off funding, we will either create a huge deficit in our budget that will result in funding cuts to services or potential layoffs, or we will have a rushed process that almost certainly will result in people being turned away from the hotels with no plan to re-house them, which means we are putting people back on the street,” Mayor London Breed wrote this week.

But sustained pushback changed the plan to move residents into permanent or supportive housing and close by October 2021.

Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved emergency legislation, lasting 60 days, that required The City to keep homeless people in the hotel rooms until federal funding ended or they received stable housing. It also requires six of every 10 rooms vacated to be made available for new placements.

“This is huge news,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who brought forward the legislation, in a text about the FEMA funding. “We no longer have to live under any uncertainty of whether the federal reimbursement will continue, and instead we can maintain and expand this program that has undoubtedly saved countless lives and been a key part of our COVID-19 response.”

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