In other cities, hundreds of unhoused people are in hotel rooms – why not San Francisco?

“There are at least 30,000 empty hotel rooms in the city,” reports the Examiner. “Many city hotels are already closed or plan to close and suspend services. Hotel workers are out of a job and healthcare. As the industry calls for a bailout, why not simply use the hotels and pay them?” – Photo of the St. Francis Hotel: Leonardo

by the Coalition on Homelessness

San Francisco – ​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. 

“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,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “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.” 

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. He did it on his own, raising close to $70,000 in the​ past week. 

“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.

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. 

“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,” said Chris Herring, researcher and an incoming assistant professor of sociology at UCLA. 

While there are concerns about staffing for hotels rooms, homeless people in shelters and encampments are currently receiving little to no support services but are able to survive on their own day to day. According to the 2019 homeless Point-in-Time survey, 36 percent 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 experiencing homelessness for only 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 percent 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. 

“What most people don’t understand is that you aren’t getting anything more on the streets than you would be getting living by yourself in a hotel room,” said Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness. “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.” 

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 percent​ reported having at least one disabling health condition and 31 percent have chronic health conditions.

 A study released by researchers at a UCLA and University of Pennsylvania project reports that homeless people 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 the 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 percent of its hotel room costs. 

For more information, contact Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach at jfriedenbach@cohsf.org and UCLA Assistant Professor of Sociology Christopher Herring (Fall 2020) at christoph.herring@berkeley.edu.