Cities Are Moving Unhoused People into Hotel Rooms, San Francisco Isn’t

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, San Francisco Mayor London Breed has refused to use executive powers to house San Francisco’s 9,000 homeless residents living in the City’s streets and shelters. Under the Mayor’s emergency powers in the Charter and Administrative Code, Breed has the authority to commandeer a portion of the 33,000 vacant hotel rooms to house homeless residents, but has yet to utilize those powers in spite of the dire situation at hand. 

Quite frankly, this is a matter of life and death. We need to get homeless people inside hotel rooms immediately who have no way to shelter-in-place and protect themselves from the virus.  It is well within the Mayor’s powers to commandeer vacant hotel rooms — and she has a moral responsibility to prevent the deaths of hundreds of our most vulnerable San Franciscans. Not only that, she doesn’t even have to pay market rate for them.  She can pay later. And it is not just the Mayor. Public Health Officer Tomas Aragon can do the same. He also has the power. No bids necessary, not negotiation, just action is all that is needed.  

Other cities across the United States with less stringent “shelter-in-place” orders than San Francisco have already begun placing hundreds of homeless people into hotel rooms. In New Orleans, local officials rented 155 rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn for homeless encampment residents. Cities in Connecticut have rapidly moved homeless people from shelters into hotels and hope to house 1,000 to 1,100 people in the coming days. Just across the bay, Oakland’s first homeless guests checked into hotel rooms last Wednesday and will have close to 400 rooms to fill. 

San Francisco, which has a homeless population of over 9,000 people, still has not moved any homeless people into hotel rooms as a preventative measure. Only private efforts by District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston have housed some 40 homeless women and families on his own, raising close to $70,000 in the past week. 

The dangers of coronavirus for San Francisco’s homeless population will prove to be deadly if nothing is done. And other cities, who have done little to prevent the spread of coronavirus within the homeless population, provide a clear picture of what will happen. 

In Las Vegas, one shelter that has shut down due to the virus has now resorted to placing homeless residents outside in a parking lot, with nothing but a few blankets. In Seattle, four shelters have come under lockdown with coronavirus outbreaks, as has Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. In New York City, there are currently 99 positive cases in 45 shelters — up from only seven cases last week. San Francisco could soon turn out to be the same if nothing is done. 

Fortunately, we still have a small window of time where we can prevent mass outbreaks from occurring in our shelters and that can happen by moving homeless people into hotels now.  But there is no time to waste.

While there are concerns about staffing for hotel rooms, homeless people in encampments are currently receiving little to no support services, but are able to survive on their own day to day. Individuals staying in shelter must be able to self-care or they are not eligible to stay there.  According to the 2019 Homeless Point-in-Time survey, 36% of San Francisco’s homeless were housed just months ago within the past year, in their own homes caring for themselves. Thirty one percent are only experiencing homelessness for their first time this year. According to a recent needs assessment carried out by a team of university professors and the Coalition on Homelessness, 52% had been housed within the past three years. 

While there will be a need for janitorial services and food delivery, the type of intensive support care — or Sheriff staff, as has happened in the case of Laguna Honda — is unnecessary for the healthy but at-risk unhoused people placed in hotels. 

Individuals on the streets are not getting anything more than they would be getting by living by themself in a hotel room,  Most people see a social worker once a month — or sometimes even less. People are absolutely capable of living on their own; in fact, they have had to because of the complete neglect by the government.  Before COVID-19, the city was putting about people in stabilization rooms, and in supportive housing straight off the streets and straight out of shelter – placing them in hotel rooms is not different. They have only three staff for the whole building in many supportive housing programs. There are legitimate concerns that placing someone with high levels of substance use could result in overdoses – but this could be easily addressed by allowing that individual to bunk with a friend in the room.  

Homeless populations skew older and over half of all homeless people are 50 years old or older. In addition, most have multiple health conditions. According to the City’s 2019 Point-in-Time count, 69% reported having at least one disabling health condition and 31% have chronic health conditions. A study released by researchers at UCLA and University of Pennsylvania project that homeless who contract COVID-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized, and two to four times as likely to die than the general population. There is perhaps no more efficient way to protect our medical care workers and broader San Franciscans from reaching surge capacity than sheltering the unhoused in individual units.

While city officials have cited issues with resources to lease hotel rooms, they can be commandeered at “fair value,” as per the City’s administrative code, rather than at market value, and the City does not need to pay for said rooms until after the crisis subsides. 

San Francisco is currently paying far more than other municipalities for rooms, at over $100 compared to just $49 per night in Los Angeles and $24 per night in London. There is also a $150 billion homelessness emergency fund from the State of California. Billions in federal funds can be used to reimburse counties for leasing hotel rooms, which Connecticut says it will utilize to cover 75% of its hotel room costs. 

Moving thousands of people from streets, and shelters is not going to be perfect, but perfection should not prevent us from placing people in rooms. Local community homeless service providers can figure out who to place in hotels — they can quickly triage because they already know their clients and  rapidly place them. Many can provide follow up support services as well as food delivery.  

San Francisco takes a lot of pride in its response to COVID-19.  And we should. We may very well succeed at flattening the curve and slowing down the spread of the virus, avoiding some of the catastrophes we have seen elsewhere.  But that is not going to happen if we have almost 10,000 people with the inability to practice social distancing and who cannot shelter in place because they have no place to shelter.  Let’s get them into private rooms and fast.