City officials are proposing to wind down a program allowing vulnerable homeless people to shelter in unused hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic by October of next year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City officials are proposing to wind down a program allowing vulnerable homeless people to shelter in unused hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic by October of next year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supes to square off with Mayor’s Office — again — over shelter-in-place hotel program

Emergency legislation to halt plans to close SIP hotel program will go to full board for vote

Legislation seeking to stop San Francisco from starting to wind down its shelter-in-place hotels this month won backing from the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee Wednesday.

Supervisors Matt Haney, Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston co-sponsored the ordinance that would require The City to keep making hotel rooms available during the pandemic until federal reimbursement for COVID-19 response is terminated, adequate supportive housing placements exist for all current hotel residents or the local emergency order ends.

Buoyed by a coalition of current hotel occupants, homelessness service providers and advocates who called into Wednesday’s meeting, the three-member committee voted 2-1 in support. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who said he hoped the legislation would evolve before it was heard in front of the full board, was the lone dissenting vote.

The legislation seeks to make hotel placements a pipeline into eventual permanent or stable housing for formerly unhoused occupants, and it would keep rooms under city control even when they are vacated so other unhoused individuals, not only those previously identified as “vulnerable,” could move into rooms as they become available.

“We know the SIP hotel program is temporary, and the ultimate goal must be permanent and stable housing, but we can’t rush to dismantle the program,” Haney said in a press conference Wednesday.

Since SIP hotels opened in April, approximately 2,359 homeless individuals and families considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 based on age or underlying health conditions have been moved into rooms leased by The City.

The program was designed to temporarily give unhoused residents a physical space to shelter-in-place, not as a long-term solution for the thousands of people living on city streets.

It’s been celebrated for its impact in keeping COVID-19 infection and mortality rates relatively low among the unhoused. It was so successful, in fact, that an analysis by the Emergency Operations Center this summer concluded more hotel rooms were no longer needed based on the “rate of infection and demands on our hospital system,” the San Francisco Public Press reported in August, and The City stopped signing new lease agreements.

That’s why, earlier this year, the the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing laid out a phased demobilization for the SIP hotels. It planned to start with 500 residents being moved to supportive housing, congregate shelters or outdoor safe sleeping sites by year’s end with the ultimate goal of winding down the entire program by June 2021.

Full-throated public pushback has tempered the vision, however.

A revised plan from DHSH committed to moving every hotel resident into permanent or supportive housing, pursuing more affordable housing placement options, extending the deadline for full closure to October 2021 and collecting and publishing comprehensive data.

Mandelman said these changes were substantive enough that he viewed the department’s proposal and the supervisors’ as being largely in agreement on the crux of the debate: that nobody should have to leave the hotels without permanent housing of some kind lined up for them.

Supervisors who favor the legislation say the retooled plan still dismantles the cost-effective, impactful intervention without an alternative solution, and point to the many people still on the streets as proof these units are critically needed.

“There is simply no place for people to go to be off of the sidewalks of the neighborhood or off the sidewalk in front of someone’s home or business,” Ronen said. “The only thing we can do is move this person to a different sidewalk.”

According to City Controller Ben Rosenfield, this fiscal year budgets about $179 million for the SIP hotel program, but San Francisco should only have to foot about $3 million of that cost thanks to robust reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Authority and state subsidies.

Federal funding could be cut at any point, however, with only 30-days notice. State support often moves slowly. Eventually, both could dry up, leaving San Francisco to pay the difference.

Should that happen, without a gradual slowdown starting now, The City could hit a “cliff” where it would be forced to exit more than two thousand people back to the streets all at once without adequate housing placements, DHSH Interim Director Abigail Stewart-Kahn warned.

FEMA reimbursement also requires the program to be part of San Francisco’s coronavirus public health response, and Stewart-Kahn says the ordinance would functionally expand the purpose of the hotel rooms beyond their original shelter-in-place intent.

“The difference of opinion here is wanting to use them as a shelter system to clear streets,” Stewart-Kahn said, reflecting her agency’s view that the SIP hotels should be a temporary tool to house those vulnerable to COVID-19, not solve San Francisco’s homelessness crisis.

She cautioned this latter approach would vastly reduce FEMA’s contribution if too many people don’t qualify as “eligible,” pass the cost to The City, make local financial investment untenable and gut resources for other more permanent housing solutions for other people.

“This is a health intervention that is cost-efficient only when, and if, reimbursed by FEMA. If we expand our definition of who moves into a SIP hotel in order to clear the streets, we won’t see that reimbursement […] and we’ll see hundreds of millions dollars on The City budget,” Stewart-Kahn said.

Mandelman said the ordinance on the table failed to grapple with what to do if those funds ran out.

“We need to be honest and forthright in what our plans are for the hotels,” he said. “I think we have an obligation to figure out what our plan is, and I don’t think we’ve done that yet.”

Co-sponsors see anyone living on the street as more vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, and they repeatedly reiterated it was The City’s responsibility to convince FEMA of that fact.

They also say the crisis is simple: there are people on the streets and there’s nowhere to put them. An “arbitrary” October 2021 wind-down deadline, they say, risks putting current hotel occupants right back where they started.

“Closing down the SIP hotels should be something that we consider only if there is literally no other option on the table,” Ronen said. “To do it prematurely, to do it because we’re scared FEMA might not reimburse us makes absolutely no sense and it is in fact irresponsible and unacceptable.”

DHSH agrees far more is needed, but it proposes leveraging finite resources toward longer-term investments that aren’t temporary or subject to FEMA’s fickle reimbursement requirements.

Stewart-Kahn said without a massive injection of stable federal funds, “we don’t have the resources, at the moment, to solve homelessness in San Francisco.”

Both the demobilization plan and the ordinance bake in a large degree of flexibility in light of the ongoing public health crisis, and try to equip agencies in charge with the ability to respond deftly.

The latter would require evaluation after 60 days, and again after 120 days to “right-size” demand.

Even so, there’s no guarantee Breed will heed the direction of the board, even if the ordinance passes there.

Supervisors unanimously passed legislation in April calling for The City to lease 8,250 hotel rooms to provide shelter for unhoused individuals during the first stay-at-home order.

Breed did not follow the direction, and moved to lease roughly 2,600 instead.

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