Community groups urge SF not to shut down shelter-in-place hotels

Closures would likely prompt a spike in street-based homelessness

By Mary Kate Bacalao

San Francisco’s major service provider coalitions, whose members comprise almost the entire homeless response system, have asked The City to pause its shelter-in-place (SIP) hotel “rehousing plan.” The plan, developed without input from the service providers tasked with implementing it, lays out an unrealistic, even dangerous timeline for closing hotel sites and relocating nearly 2,400 homeless people and families.

The first seven hotel closures— scheduled for Dec. 21, mere weeks away—will likely trigger a spike in street-based homelessness during a time when deaths among unhoused people are up 123% and overdose deaths are up 70%. The closures will require mass layoffs of frontline hotel workers right before a major holiday. And according to the plan, only one in five of the 500 hotel residents slated for “rehousing” will actually get a housing referral (a referral is a match with housing; it is not housing).

The timeline raises disturbing public health questions: why now? The SIP hotels have been a mainstay of The City’s COVID-19 response. Why shut them down now, at the onset of flu season, in the middle of a fall surge that experts have warned about for months? Why shut them down now, earlier than almost all of the other Bay Area counties, when these counties coordinated successful public health orders that have held off disaster for most of the year?

The City’s answer is that SIP hotels, while effective, are expensive. But we all knew this. San Francisco put a premium on public health when Mayor London Breed ordered, and stuck to, months-long closures of non-essential business and activities. Those investments are paying off as the virus rages beyond the Bay Area. To shut down the SIP hotels because they’re expensive is a deeply shortsighted reversal.

And it does not answer the question, “Why now?” A Biden-Harris administration will help us all breathe easier about federal reimbursements. At the state level, Project Homekey has awarded San Francisco almost $75 million over the last two months to convert hotel properties to permanent housing—new inventory that could rehouse people from the SIP hotels once it comes online. And just last week, San Francisco voters approved several new revenue measures that could generate substantial funding for similar initiatives.

With nearly $500 million in Proposition C funding unlocked by the courts in September, it is dumbfounding why The City would ask the SIP hotel operators to issue potentially hundreds of pink slips to their workers, right before the holidays. Proposition C’s win means that our sector will need to hire — not fire — an expanded workforce of case managers, shelter counselors and other frontline staff to maximize our housing-related investments. Now is not the time for layoffs: it is time to start ending homelessness and creating an inclusive economic recovery.

Our homeless response system has made a commitment to data-driven decision-making that centers racial equity. But we lack basic demographic data for about half of the SIP hotel residents. This is a critical gap given the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on people of color. The most rational, data-driven thing we can do right now is collect the demographic data and develop a clear plan that does not relocate people of color either to the unemployment lines or to the streets.

There is too much at stake to forge ahead on a “rehousing plan” that is short on planning and even shorter on housing. We simply lack capacity to relocate 2,400 people in less than eight months without returning many of them to the streets. No service provider in either coalition thinks of the SIP hotels as a long-term response to homelessness—but we broadly (if not unanimously) agree that now is not the time to shut them down. It’s not good policy. We can do better in the City of St. Francis.

Mary Kate Bacalao the director of external affairs and policy at Compass Family Services and the co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association (HESPA)

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