Two San Francisco hotels on a busy street.
San Francisco has paused its plans to close some of its 25 shelter-in-place hotels. (TJ Johnston)

As public health and homeless advocates urge San Francisco to keep the shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels open, the City announced that its plans to close two of the remaining 25 SIP hotels are put on hold through at least the end of the year, Street Sheet has learned.

The City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) sent a memo to the hotels’ service providers announcing a pause in relocating COVID-vulnerable residents to congregate shelters as of August 19, after adding 170 congregate beds in the previous two months. 

The program has already lodged some 2,000 unhoused San Franciscans during the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping them healthy and saving lives, according to the Do No Harm coalition at an August 26 press conference. The day before, the coalition of medical professionals and students and its allies told Mayor London Breed and other high-ranking officials in a letter that a surge in the coronavirus delta variant — now the dominant strain in COVID-19 infections — is the wrong time to move SIP residents into shelters. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency already announced it will extend reimbursements to cities for keeping unhoused people in hotels through December 31. Earlier this year, FEMA announced retroactive funding in full from January 2020, relieving the City of the burden of paying for hotels with general fund dollars.

Do No Harm co-founder Rupa Marya said at the presser that SIPs are as much a preventative against COVID-19 and delta variant infection as the vaccine. If anything, she said, the City should grow the SIP program, not shut it down.

“With federal support, the City should be expanding the SIP hotels and other safe housing options, rather than warehousing people,” she said. 

Despite HSH’s announcement of suspending intake in the shelters, it will continue to add capacity in the fall. Marya said that would still pose an unhealthy and unnecessary risk.

“Congregate shelter endangers the lives of our unhoused community members in the face of the delta variant, which is even more transmissible than the virus we dealt with last year and can spread even among vaccinated people,” she said.

“What I’ve seen here is people getting care for the first time…the hotels have allowed people to put their lives back”

Nicholas Garrett is a born and raised San Franciscan who has been unhoused for two years. Garrett, 42, is now staying at the Americania Hotel in the South of Market neighborhood. In his time at the hotel, he said that he has observed health improvements in his fellow SIP residents. People living with physical and mental disabilities, substance use issues and trauma from domestic violence are making progress in their healing, he said, and closing down the SIPs would undo that progress.

“What I’ve seen here is people getting care for the first time [in their lives] and services they wouldn’t seek out there [in the streets],” Garrett said. “We’re facing a new bunch of challenges right now, and I don’t think putting people who have finally been stabilized out on the streets is a good choice. The hotels have allowed people to put their lives back together.”

When the City instituted the SIP program last year, it initially prioritized medically vulnerable members of the homeless population — those at 60 years of age or older, and others with existing health conditions. The collective of advocacy groups highlighted unhoused people’s susceptibility to the virus in the letter it sent to Mayor Breed. It alluded to a UC San Francisco study that found them to be at least 20 years older in physical age than their housed peers. It also cited that only 39% of unhoused folk in San Francisco are fully vaccinated — the rate among the City’s general population is currently 72%.

While the City has paused closings for some SIPs, five in the Tenderloin have already closed as of press time; The Diva, Chancellor and Union Square hotels, which housed single adults; Motel 6, for families; and the Abigail, which served transitional-aged youth. A sixth, Epik Hotel, which serves women fleeing violence, will close at the end of September.   

The Americania, where Nicholas Garrett stays, is not yet closed. With federal funding assured through the end of the year, closures of the remaining SIPs have apparently been pushed back. While he appreciates the presence of health workers and receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the Americania, he told Street Sheet “there should be different levels of care for different levels of need” at the hotel, and his stay has been a life-changer. Still, to Garrett, closing them down in the middle of a delta surge is not just bad timing, but cruel.

“It’s almost a crime against humanity to shut them down,” he said.

CLARIFICATION: The print version of this story implied that the city would be pausing closure of all 25 SIP hotels. In fact, the City announced a pause in closing two SIP hotels while still planning to close others in September. This story has been edited online to reflect this information.

This story was originally published in Street Sheet.

TJ Johnston is the Assistant Editor of Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper.