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'Lives Are on the Line': Advocates Call on SF to Keep Hotels Open for Unhoused Residents

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Advocates with posters demonstrate outside San Francisco City Hall.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness demonstrate outside San Francisco City Hall on Sept. 7, 2021, demanding the city continue funding its shelter-in-place hotel program. (Kate Wolffe/KQED News)

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco are calling on the city to maintain its shelter-in-place hotel program and begin accepting people off the streets again.

A few dozen activists, who held a car caravan and rally outside City Hall Tuesday, praised the program, which has housed several thousand people experiencing homelessness in hotels since it began in April 2020 — and emphasized the need for its continuation, amid ongoing concern over the highly contagious delta variant.

“It's pretty common knowledge that the delta variant is even more infectious than the original COVID variant, which created and brought people together to create these hotels,” said Lina Khouer, a UCSF medical student who’s part of a group called the Do No Harm Coalition, which helped organize the rally. “Right now we're calling on the city to not close the hotels, but expand them to keep our communities safe and healthy."

In June, as new COVID-19 infection rates in San Francisco plummeted, before the delta variant reared its head, the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing began phasing out the hotel program, part of Project Roomkey, a statewide homeless relief initiative.

The city has so far closed five of 25 hotel locations, with another one scheduled to close at the end of this month. Officials say due to budget constraints, the city will continue incrementally shutting down hotels through the end of the program, slated for June 2022.


More than 1,400 people are still staying in the remaining hotels, said Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, adding that the program does not have the capacity to continue accepting new people off the street. Doing so would also slow down efforts to rehouse people already in the program, she said.

“We are very full because we are moving very deliberately and intentionally to ensure that people are linked to permanent solutions,” Cohen said.

She said almost 600 people have been placed in permanent housing since the program started. However, it's unclear where many of the more than 1,500 people who have left hotels over the course of the program have gone.

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Advocates for people experiencing homeless argue that the city can afford to keep the hotels open longer, pointing to the Biden administration's recent commitment to reimburse cities for certain COVID-19-related expenses, including hotel rooms, through the end of 2021.

But Cohen said San Francisco’s program is also reliant on the city's general fund, which precludes keeping the hotels open past next June. The city, she added, is closing the hotels gradually to avoid “a humanitarian and logistical nightmare.”

“It takes significant city and nonprofit staffing to move people from the hotels into housing,” Cohen said. “It's not a quick process. And so we really need to have the capacity and the workers to do this process. Any delays will just result in a tremendous crisis at the end of the program.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she understands why the city would want to phase out the program gradually, but that right now, “lives are on the line.”

“We have folks that are elders that are out there on the street still that have severe health conditions that would greatly benefit from being able to shelter in place inside a hotel,'' she said. “They need the respite. It's been a really transformative experience for the folks inside [the hotels]. The mortality rates have decreased significantly.”

Dominique Griffin, who helped organize Tuesday's protest, participated in a related shelter-in-place program after losing her job early on in the pandemic. She and her two children were able to stay for free for a year at the Oasis Inn near City Hall.

“If it wasn't for that hotel, I'd be out on the streets in a tent as well, with my children,” she said.

Now, Griffin and her family are moving into a subsidized two- bedroom apartment in the East Bay city of Pittsburg, an arrangement set up for her by a San Francisco housing case manager.

She said she wants other people in need to have the same steadying experience she was able to have over the past year.

“If the funding is there, the need is always going to be there,” she said.

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