At the beginning of November 2020, the fate of residents of shelter-in-place, or SIP, hotels was suddenly thrown into question. Rumors began to circulate that the hotels would begin to shut down in phases, starting just days before Christmas and ending this June. There was no formal announcement to residents, or even to staff, but San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Housing (HSH) circulated a document internally that scheduled out the hotel closures. Despite having been told that moving into a hotel room would guarantee a path to permanent housing, 2,400 otherwise unhoused hotel tenants suddenly found themselves poised to be forced back onto the streets in the midst of an ongoing and even intensifying pandemic.
Thanks to community groups and hotel tenants who mobilized to protest this move, the Board of Supervisors voted to stop what was called the “SIP Hotel Demobilization Plan” and push back the timeline until all 2,400 people who had been placed in hotel rooms would be able to exit into stable housing. Then, in January, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it would reimburse cities, including San Francisco, for the expense of housing people in hotels, the supervisors also passed emergency legislation to continue to make the open hotel rooms available to vulnerable people currently living outside during the pandemic — but on the condition that these new tenants are not guaranteed a permanent exit from homelessness.
But the reality inside the hotels is much more nebulous, and many residents find themselves in a perilous limbo between hoping for housing and dreading a return to the street. A hotel worker, Alex, (name changed to protect her identity) who spoke with Street Sheet, said she felt hopeful that most people would be offered housing of some kind, and that Episcopal Community Services (ECS) staff have been doing Coordinated Entry assessments with hotel tenants. Coordinated Entry (CE) is a way of prioritizing vulnerable people experiencing homelessness for housing; some factors they consider include age, time spent without housing, pregnancy and medical status. Care coordinators employed in the SIP hotels are tasked with helping residents prepare documents and fill out applications, but the caseload is overwhelming: At the hotel she works at there are 400 guests, and just six or seven case workers to support them. And on top of the tremendous workload, SIP hotel workers are offered little training or staff support while they are on the front lines responding to questions from residents, mediating conflicts and even responding to overdoses.
Communication failures between the City, the SIP hotel staff and SIP tenants have left those staying in hotels feeling stressed and afraid of a sudden return to the streets. In a SIP tenant call organized by advocates, one hotel resident said the uncertainty was destabilizing. He said that he had tried going through the Coordinated Entry process last year, but was told there was no housing for him. Now that he has been told to go through another assessment, he worries he’ll end up with nothing again.
“Am I going to go back into this situation where I’ll be strung along and then when I reach the end they tell me, ‘Oops’? The door shuts down and they tell me, ‘Get lost—there is nothing for you,’” he said. “To be honest? I’ve given up. And I just keep my bags packed and ready to go.”
Many tenants understandably share his distrust. Tenants moving into hotels when they first opened were told they were on track to get into permanent housing and would not be returned to the streets. But when the hotels were first slated to close starting in December, few tenants had even been assessed through Coordinated Entry, much less offered permanent housing. Many tenants, and even hotel staff, found out through word of mouth that the hotels would be closing and began preparing for a sudden return to the street with no idea of when that might happen.
While the City has now promised to rehouse the original 2,400 SIP hotel tenants, according to HSH data as of February 23, only 143 people, or about 6% of hotel tenants, had exited into housing of any kind. Those exits include 93 placements in Permanent Supportive Housing, 16 receiving temporary housing support, 17 getting ongoing housing subsidies, 15 people going to stay with family or friends, and two people helped with “problem solving” to remove housing barriers. Another 284 former hotel tenants have left the hotels with no housing at all, a number that includes a range of outcomes including being kicked out, moving into congregate shelters, and dying. (For the full numbers and more information on these categories, visit https://bit.ly/3szpfuL)
But with the City’s public commitment to house almost everyone who was in the SIP hotel system before November 2021, there is hope that these numbers will turn around and a significant percentage of SIP tenants will be placed in permanent housing. If that happens, it will be an unprecedented effort by the City of San Francisco to meaningfully address homelessness.
“I think in some ways this is totally awesome, right? I never want to lose sight of that, because to imagine thousands of people would be getting housing a year ago? Ha!” said Alex. “A lot of people I see, I’m like, ‘Wow, you’ve gained 20 pounds, and you look really happy.’ But the City needs to tell people what is happening to them and give them time to plan for it, because right now everything now is shrouded in confusion, and that adds so much stress.”
Community advocates also recognize this as a unique moment that could change San Francisco’s homelessness crisis permanently. In a press conference last week, homeless advocates and hotel tenants came together to urge the City to use federal funding to offer permanent housing to more San Franciscans and ensure hotel tenants are offered housing that meets their access needs. Among the demands is for the City of San Francisco to purchase hotels that could house people permanently.
“We want to take advantage of this remarkable and rare opportunity where we have this convergence of a windfall from FEMA that was unexpected, and [hotel] owners who want to sell, and of course an increasing homeless crisis as the pandemic takes its toll on jobs and eviction moratoriums start to expire where we may see more people needing this housing,” said Sara Shortt, director of policy and community outreach at the Community Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for people experiencing homelessness. “So we ABSOLUTELY call for the city to make the smart choice and use the money to actually acquire the buildings to house people.”