A ‘Return to Normal’ in Abnormal Times
Wastewater testing is showing that San Francisco is currently experiencing perhaps the biggest COVID-19 surge yet, at the same time as the monkeypox virus is sweeping the country. With mask mandates gone and eviction protections being rolled back, the City seems set on a return to normal in the most abnormal of times.
Against this backdrop, the City is shutting down shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels, the most critical investment made to protect homeless people during the pandemic. Already, many hotels have closed, and another three are shutting down imminently. On July 19, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a proposal from the Budget and Finance Committee to extend the contracts of 11 hotels: Of these, seven are currently being used as SIP hotels, three have been converted from SIPs into semi-congregate shelters (where residents share rooms) and one was converted into a sobering center.
But three SIP hotels are slated to close—Vertigo, Buena Vista, and Americania—while the Monarch Hotel will be converted into a congregate shelter to replace the Good Hotel congregate shelter, which is closing. Despite the shutdowns happening at these sites, placements of residents from SIP hotels into permanent supportive housing have slowed over the past three months, according to slides from a presentation the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) gave service providers in July.
“Homeless folks are particularly vulnerable to negative outcomes from COVID, and the SIPs are housing the most vulnerable people, including seniors and disabled folks,” said Christin Evans, who owns the Booksmith bookstore in the Haight and has been an advocate for SIP hotel tenants. “Closing the hotels is creating a crisis, putting people at risk for poor health outcomes, and even death.”
According to the dashboard maintained by HSH and accessed by Street Sheet on July 25, SIP hotels have temporarily sheltered 3,753 residents since they first opened in April 2020, but there are currently only 693 people left in SIP hotel rooms. A total of 1,217 tenants have gotten housing of some type when exiting the SIP hotels, while 1,460 have exited to non-housing destinations, including to temporary shelter or back to the streets. The dashboard shows that 1,914 people have exited the hotels who were designated by HSH “eligible for SIP housing process,” meaning they were in the hotels by November 2020. Of these, 43% have exited without any permanent housing option to Safe Sleeping Sites, Congregate Shelters, onto the streets, or elsewhere.
Jasper (name changed to protect their identity) has lived in the Whitcomb SIP hotel since April of 2020. They say the SIP program has been a mixed blessing. The stability offered by the SIP hotel program allowed them to get their paralegal certificate from San Francisco State while also staying relatively safe during the pandemic. But they have experienced identity theft during their stay as well as having their privacy invaded on numerous occasions.
“This has been a blessing and a curse at the same time. While living here is not ideal, it’s certainly better than being in a shelter,” Jasper said. “I don’t know where I’m going to go after the Whitcomb closes. I was offered one room in a scattered site that was smaller than my room here. It had a bathroom down the hall but there was no community kitchen or laundry, and nothing in the vicinity. It was located under a highway in a food and hygiene desert.”
Jasper says that while the room might work for someone younger, it was not an acceptable solution for an older tenant, like themself, who is trying very hard to get back to work. In addition to pursuing work as a paralegal, Jasper has been trying to find permanent housing through Openhouse, an organization with a program that helps older LGBTQ+ adults find housing, and through the City’s DAHLIA Housing Portal. But so far, the few housing options that have come up have been out of their price range.
Jasper says that in order to place people properly, the City could send counselors to work with people on a consistent basis, and assess them to really get the sense of their housing needs. Some hotel residents need consistent mental health care, while others really need support with addiction and substance use. They said some people have died in the hotels because they didn’t have the social networks they had relied on while on the streets when they were moved inside and into isolation.
“And then you have people like me who are just poor. Especially women, as they reach a certain age, and who are poor, make up the fastest growing homeless population,” said Jasper. “If it were up to me I would offer counseling to everyone, with people who are trained in empathy and sympathy and who can assess—from a compassionate point of view—the needs of people in the SIP hotels.”
As the SIP hotel program continues to be shut down, Mayor London Breed is moving to expand the shelter system with a combination of congregate and non-congregate beds opening to unhoused people. This expansion comes after the Board of Supervisors passed Mandleman’s “A Place for All” legislation, which asks the department to evaluate allocating resources away from permanent housing and instead invests in shelters that keep people homeless.
The investment in shelter beds rather than housing also offers an insidious pathway for the City to skirt federal laws that make it illegal to conduct encampment sweeps without having an alternative legal option for unhoused people to stay. The City has failed to take full advantage of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to keep SIP hotels open or expand the program, which could have meant a permanent move off the streets for thousands more San Franciscans. Instead, it looks like the City will try to use money from our local budget that could subsidize housing or offer permanent supportive housing to fund shelter beds.