The clock is ticking for unhoused people staying in San Francisco’s shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels.
The 25 SIP hotels that have sheltered over 2,000 homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic are scheduled to close operations, a few at a time, according to a plan published in June by the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH).
Hotel Diva on Post Street, which the City bought and will convert into permanent supportive housing as part of the state’s Project Homekey program, already closed down on August 1. Forty people who had been staying there moved to other SIPs, while five were pushed back onto the streets, and two were sent to medical facilities. One other tenant, who refused to leave, was arrested for an outstanding warrant.
Scheduled for September closures are the Chancellor, Epik, Tilden and Union Square hotels.
Under the HSH plan, the hotels and nonprofit organizations contracted by the city to run them will be given 90 days’ notice before closure.
SIP residents will receive notice one week after the providers, according to the communications plan that HSH shared with the Local Homeless Coordinating Board (LHCB). The remaining hotels will receive closure timelines later in the year.
Meanwhile, reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for non-congregate pandemic housing are scheduled to end on September 30, the final day of the federal fiscal year.
While the City and the federal government have a definite timeline, the future of people staying at SIPs is hazy. The SIP hotels have been operating since April 2020. Last December, amid intense public outcry the City had to scrap a plan to phase out the SIPs despite surging COVID-19 cases only after getting state funding to keep the program afloat and.
Now, as the City faces a surge of the more transmissible coronavirus delta variant, it’s considering demobilizing the SIP program once more. But one critical question still lingers: Where do the residents go?
At a June meeting of the LHCB, then-interim HSH director Abigail Stewart-Kahn told the board that hotel staff were assessing residents for possible housing exits under the City’s coordinated entry system. She said that many residents weren’t yet “document ready”—that is, having ID, birth certificates and other paperwork that would expedite their re-housing process.
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That’s not what SIP residents have been telling RK Johnson, a shelter client advocate for the Eviction Defense Collaborative. Based on their accounts, Johnson disputes the City’s assertion that residents weren’t document ready. Many tenants have papers, she said, but the City has been slow to place them in housing, so it has been shuffling them around.
“A lot of people are being told that they haven’t been placed into housing, so they’re being taken into another SIP hotel and also being relocated in congregate shelters,” she said.
Tenants have also been receiving between two days’ and two weeks’ notice—far short of the 90 days HSH is giving SIP providers and more importantly far short of the notice tenants are supposed to receive. They are also given the boot with inadequate referrals to services.
“When they let them know [about closings], they give a dinky little paper with a list of resources, but the resources don’t exist because of COVID,” she said. “If it’s not operating at full capacity; it’s not helping the people who need those resources.”
Other times, tenants have been receiving information in fleeting moments during the hotels’ community meetings or from flyers posted on doorways to entrances and exits, Johnson said. Yet, providers and clients alike are given a scarcity of information from the City’s homelessness department and COVID-19 Command Center, she added.
Asked what the general public should consider about the closures, Johnson said, “There needs to be a period of patience, a period of understanding and a period of action, because the City won’t keep the SIP hotels open if they don’t feel like there is enough of a demand for them.” She added, “it will take the whole community to push on the subject and keep the hotels open—because I see the good in them. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than being swept on the streets and being targeted by the police and DPW.”
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Susan Griffin was spared the physical hazards of homelessness, thanks in part to her seven-month stay at the Chancellor Hotel. Displaced from her housing after an illness, Griffin spent a couple of months couch surfing and occasionally staying at hotels. Through connections at her church and the SF Homeless Outreach Team, she secured a room at the Chancellor.
“If I hadn’t gotten into the SIP, I would have been outside,” she said.
While at the hotel, Griffin worked as a receptionist at H&R Block during tax season. Between her earnings from the tax preparation firm and her Social Security payments, Griffin was able to save enough money to move into an apartment on Van Ness Avenue.
Griffin learned in November of the City’s initial closure plan that was eventually shelved, but there was also scuttlebutt among hotel residents of possible housing available.
“The rumor was that we were getting housing no matter what,” but there was no guarantee of a private bathroom like she had at the hotel — a step down from the SIP, she said.
“You’d get housing of some sort, but it was a homeless shelter type of situation. That was something I was not interested in doing,” she said.
The offer would’ve been to move to a single-resident occupancy hotel, she recalled. Like shelters, SROs fit the City and state’s definition for congregate sites, which are considered high-risk environments. COVID outbreaks in SROs occurred in the spring of 2020.
It certainly would be a far cry from Chancellor, a historic boutique hotel built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, located along a cable car line and around the corner from Union Square. On its website, Chancellor touts a menu of 12 different types of pillows for guests’ comfort.
Griffin might have dodged a bullet by moving into an apartment on her own. Compared with others experiencing chronic homelessness, Griffin had a relatively smooth entry into housing, but still her homeless episode was marked with uncertainty.
“It was frightening,” she said. “I was afraid of not having any sort of roof over my head. It was scary, frightening to be vulnerable.”
“Mr. Gutierrez” told Street Sheet that he arrived in San Francisco with a small boy’s dreams of moving to the big city. He doesn’t want his real name or his birthplace to be published, because would-be employers have passed him over when they learned of his unhoused status.
Mr. Gutierrez, 30, moved from the East Coast in 2019. He had several jobs doing kitchen work, construction and window washing. Last spring, the Homeless Outreach Team found him living in a tent on Turk and Jones streets and referred him to the Tilden Hotel.
Since living at Tilden, Mr. Gutierrez has enrolled in job-readiness programs at Code Tenderloin and Downtown Streets Team. He’s also focusing on earning his GED certificate and eventually becoming a caseworker or social worker.
“Ever since I’ve been at the hotel, I’ve been trying to find myself and how to better myself,” he said.
Less than one-half mile from his former encampment, Tilden seems a world away. It’s near Union Square, and offers amenities found in most tourist hotels, such as concierge service and a gym.
News of the hotel’s impending August 31 closure came to Mr. Gutierrez in a note last month. Still, he’s optimistic about a housing opportunity where he could get a subsidy covering half of his rent. As of press time, he didn’t know yet where the housing would be or his move-in date, but he said he hopes to remain in the City.
“I’m trying not to leave San Francisco, because I got a lot of opportunities. I’m still going to chase my goals because I’ll be rewarded for my patience,” he said. “There’s always a solution to everything if you want to find it.”