The program accommodating unhoused San Franciscans during the COVID-19 pandemic is scheduled to end in mid-December with the shuttering of the Hotel Whitcomb, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH).
The Whitcomb has become the last remaining safe harbor for homeless people in its final days of participating in the shelter-in-place (SIP) hotel program. Since the program began during the pandemic’s early days in April 2020, the Whitcomb has been one of 25 sites that provide a place to stay for people who would otherwise have no roof over their heads at the onset of a global public health emergency.
According to HSH data as of publication time, 237 guests are still housed by the program, which has provided 2,228 rooms and served over 3,700 people, including adults, families and transitional-aged youth, since 2020.
Where these 237 SF residents will go when the Whitcomb closes isn’t yet clear. The City promised not to exit anyone back onto the streets, but of the people HSH determined to be eligible for SIP rehousing process, only 1,331, or 57%, successfully exited to some kind of housing or were awarded a housing subsidy. The rest mostly went on to temporary shelter, other institutional settings, or exited through eviction or of their own accord. Others were shuffled to other SIPs when HSH “demobilized” them, or shut them down.
When the City declared a shelter-in-place order in March 2020, unhoused folks faced particular challenges to following guidelines for avoiding the coronavirus: The lockdown shut unsheltered people out of drop-in centers and other places where they could perform basic hygiene, while shelters and other congregate settings struggled to facilitate physical distancing among residents. To remedy this problem for a vulnerable population, the Board of Supervisors ordered hotels to fill over 8,000 vacant rooms. The program operated as many as 30 hotels, including some for front-line health workers and patients in isolation and quarantine, but later in 2020, the City attempted to phase them out.
Those plans were delayed amid outcry from homeless advocates, who pointed out the availability of state and federal funding, and the emergence of coronavirus variants. This moved HSH to give service providers operating the hotels at least 90 days’ notice before closure.
However, in 2022, when federal funding lapsed, the City started closing down 16 of the remaining SIP sites at a pace of one or two per month, though some were later repurposed as non-congregate shelters or isolation and quarantine sites for infected unhoused people.
The SIP program has also factored into a 15%decrease in the City’s unsheltered population since 2019, according to this year’s point-in-time homeless count.