As Hotels Close, Advocates Say “Keep SIPs Open”

On October 20, the Tilden Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood saw more people outside its doors on a damp, dreary afternoon than were inside. About two dozen activists from the Coalition on Homelessness, Senior & Disability Action and other allies and members of the city’s unhoused community rallied outside the nine-story hotel that, until that week, was used as a shelter-in-place (SIP) hotel to protect homeless people from COVID-19. 

The advocates demanded that SIP hotels funded and operated by the City stay open, and that they take in more unsheltered San Francicans while the pandemic persists.

A man who identified himself as the hotel manager told them that the Tilden was now empty: Every resident had already left ahead of the October 22 closing date. The ground-floor windows of the 118-unit hotel were boarded up, but the activists, who brought their own sound system, a brass band and plenty of signs, made their appeal nonetheless.

Freddie Martin, a housing organizer with Senior & Disability Action, spoke to participants and passersby of the City’s pandemic-era homelessness approach—and where it falls short.

“We had an opportunity to house 8,500 unhoused people in San Francisco, and only 2,500 [hotel rooms] got used,” he told them. “Over 600 rooms are vacant right now, and they’re trying to close more. It doesn’t make any sense!”

The City has already shuttered seven of its 30 SIP hotels, despite assurances of continued funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Why doesn’t it keep providing unsheltered people with a roof over their heads—not to mention a private bed and bathroom—as long as the money is available?

Equally mystifying to SIP resident Roberto Hernandez, who also spoke at the action, is what the future might hold when he and other remaining occupants must check out.

“I’m thankful for having a room, but I’m scared of what’s gonna happen,” he said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “I just want to know what’s going on with the City. Nobody knows what’s going to happen to us. There’s some people staying here, sleeping there. They’re not prepared for after because there’s nowhere to go.”

Where will they go?

Several days after the protest outside the Tilden Hotel, The Chronicle reported that City officials had announced that the Shelter-In-Place Hotel would be extended by three months, with the final hotel shuttering in September 2022. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) says the extension will cost $67 million, most of which would be covered by FEMA funding. 

But the department announced that two more SIPs will close by year’s end. Residents at the Cova Hotel in the Tenderloin and the Good Hotel in South of Market were notified that both hotels are slated for closure. The department’s policy for SIP closures is to give 90 days’ notice to the hotels and staff from nonprofits operating there.

Advocates still fear for SIP residents returning to congregate shelters, where COVID-19 and its variants could spread much more easily.

Street Sheet contacted the Homelessness Department, which maintained that it’s taking a careful approach to “demobilization,” its term for hotel closures, and rehousing SIP residents.  

“As we move into recovery and we’re looking for FEMA dollars to end, we’re doing it in a slow, deliberate and client-centered way so as not to end the program abruptly,” said deputy communications director Emily Cohen.

Cohen also provided the Homelessness Department’s breakdown of where residents of the closed hotels have ended up: 66% have transferred to other SIPs, 23% moved into permanent supportive housing units, 3% are now in noncongregate shelters or “stabilization” sites, 2% were medically discharged, and 2% were presumed to be back on the streets.

Cohen says that only a “very small percentage” of people are likely to be living on the streets again. “We’re making an assumption. We think that’s where we think they went, we’re not sure,” she said.

When pressed on upcoming closures, Cohen said that there will be two more scheduled by December 31, but added that she didn’t know which ones. As of publication time, Cohen didn’t respond to Street Sheet’s questions asking why the City doesn’t keep SIPs open and move more homeless people into vacant rooms.

Supervisor Matt Haney asked a similar question of Cohen and her colleague Noelle Simmons, chief deputy director of the Homelessness Department, at a Budget and Finance Committee hearing on October 27. 

Simmons told the panel that intaking SIP guests and adding staff took time, as did waiting for funding from the City budget, which was approved in July. “The reality is that we just had several months of a slow ramp-up,” Simmons said.

Cohen added that SIP residents have the option to view up to three housing offers before exiting the hotel, either into housing or otherwise, and that the City doesn’t want to kick them out if they’ve seen only one unit. “(People are) in mid-process of an ongoing engagement” of being rehoused, she said. 

As for backfilling vacant SIP rooms, Simmons said that staff at SIPs are so focused on current residents that taking in new people and connecting them to services would stretch workers thin. She added that the process would put the plan to close hotels behind schedule.

“The effect of that is that our timeline would be blown up,” she said.

In reality, Homelessness and Supportive Housing is already far behind in their efforts to place people in housing. 

“Right now, HSH is has only reached about 50% its SIP hotel resident rehousing goal, which is why they are reserving vacant rooms for hotel residents being displaced from the hotels they are closing when they should be using them to get people off the streets,” said Coalition on Homelessness director Jennifer Friedenbach. “In other words it is due to their own bureaucratic tangle that they can’t take full advantage of the federal funding.”

Healthy community

“Housing is health care” has become a mantra for homeless advocates throughout the pandemic, who cite cases where SIP residents finally received treatment for chronic conditions. Friedenbach noted that access to healthcare and the ability to maintain one’s well-being are almost impossible while unhoused, while SIPs offer healing for unhoused folk.

“Having the dignity of a door to close, the stability of a bed to sleep in, access to a bathroom and hygiene, being able to hold on to medications and not have them confiscated, getting enough sleep: These are things that don’t happen on the streets or in shelters, but do happen in SIP hotels,” said Friedenbach. 

These anecdotes of people reporting improved health outcomes after moving into hotels now have numbers to back them up and are validated by lived experience, thanks to Naomi Schoenfeld.

Schoenfeld, a nurse practitioner at the Department of Public Health and a medical anthropologist at UC San Francisco, worked in SIP hotels from October 2020 to May 2021. Along with colleagues at UCSF, she conducted an independent study of residents’ health by analyzing DPH data and interviewing residents. She presented her findings at the October 27 Budget Committee hearing. 

Schoenfeld found that compared to the residents’ time on the streets, their hotel stays produced fewer deaths, fewer emergency and inpatient hospitalizations and greater connection to outpatient medical care.

She noted the disproportionate impact of homelessness on Black residents. While Black people comprise only 5% of San Francisco’s population, the City’s homeless figures show they make up 37% of unhoused people.

The study also showed how Black residents “bore the brunt of racist housing and environmental practices,” Schoenfeld told Street Sheet before the committee meeting. She added that Black men in the Western Addition neighborhood are historically pulled into the criminal justice system at a young age, which acts as a precursor to homelessness.

“The criminal justice system sets you up to be perpetually homeless” if you’re a Black man, she said.

If only one statistic jumps out to the Budget Committee, it should be the Homelessness Department’s own estimate that only 23% of SIP residents enter permanent housing. Any public agency would be hard pressed to sell a program that only successfully houses one out of every four people. The balance of San Francisco’s homeless population could have a fighting chance if the hotel program were to continue, or even expand. But what would the supervisors on that panel make of closing SIP hotels before transitioning tenants out of homelessness? Maybe the words of Freddie Martin, the housing organizer who was at one time unhoused, would echo in their ears: “It doesn’t make sense.”