As Shelter-In-Place Hotels Begin To Close, Thousands Of People Wait For A New Home
When Nicolas Garrett got a room at the Hotel Americania in May of 2020, it was the first time he had slept in a bed in months. He became homeless about two years ago when a serious neck injury stopped him from doing cabinetry work. He tried busking with his guitar on BART for a year, but then the pandemic hit, stations were empty.
“I had rent to pay and I couldn't pay it. And the next thing I knew, I was on the streets,” he says.
So, instead of playing on trains, he began sleeping on them. Not great for his neck, he says. Eventually, a housing advocate handed him a tent and he set up camp at one of the city’s safe sleeping sites near the library downtown. He says he almost gave up on the whole idea of being housed. Then one morning someone showed up outside his tent.
“And he asked me if I could get my stuff together and be ready to move into a hotel in 45 minutes. And it was just that quick.”
He grabbed his belongings and his dog, Junior, and he settled into a room on the second floor of the retro-themed Hotel Americania near 7th and Mission.
“It was like walking into a Best Western or, you know, a Motel 6. Just to look at it from the outside, it just looks like a regular type hotel.”
The Americania is one of 25 tourist hotels the city leased last year in an effort to house some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents. They’re known as “shelter-in-place hotels” and they’ve housed over 3,600 people since the beginning of the pandemic. Nicolas considers himself lucky to get a spot here — he tells me that many of his neighbors are elderly, have mobility issues, substance abuse, or mental health problems.
“There are people at the hotel who ... I can think of two cases right off the bat who have never had a place of their own.”
There are a few annoyances, he says. You can’t have a microwave in your room, it’s a potential fire hazard. You can’t bring in guests. Now that it’s been a shelter-in-place site for the past year, he says the conditions have deteriorated. It’s the daily wellness checks first thing in the morning that really bugs him.
“I don't want to be woken up at six o'clock on a Sunday morning and especially not by someone who's banging on my door like a cop,” Nicolas says.
But, he says he’s finally able to feel secure. He’s been able to accumulate some belongings again, like a guitar, without worrying that it’ll get stolen. For his neighbors, it’s the regular nursing staff that have been a literal lifesaver.
“Especially for people that are dealing with mental challenges, you can't really expect somebody who's dealing with hardcore schizophrenia or even drug addiction to get to appointments on time.”
The hotels were always supposed to be temporary. The plan was — and still is — to try to rehouse everyone into something more permanent. But last fall, when the city announced they were going to start gradually closing down the hotels right before Christmas, there was an uproar.
“I heard people saying...they're just going to, like, chain themselves to their doors, I mean talking about going to extreme measures not to be kicked out on the street.
Critics said it was crazy to close the hotels during a huge winter COVID-19 surge. The city argued: FEMA money from the feds covering the hotel cost could run out, they wouldn’t be able to afford to keep them open.
But once Joe Biden was elected, it was clear that money wasn’t going away for a while. Nicolas got word he could stay a bit longer. The new plan is to resume transitioning people out of hotels now and over the next year since federal funding runs out in September.
“We are going to gradually close them over the course of the year. So each quarter, essentially closing a quarter of the hotels to wind down the process in a way that gives us the time and capacity to house people,” says Emily Cohen, a director at the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
She says there’s a commitment to offer housing to every person who entered the hotels before November of last year ( around 2200 people are in the queue). And she says they have the supply. That could mean a spot in city permanent supportive housing, short-term rental assistance, or a voucher that acts as a subsidy, so someone can find a room or an apartment on their own.
“We don't want to return anyone from the shelter-in-place hotels to the streets.”
But she says this takes a while. Not every housing unit, or the neighborhood it's in, may be the right match for someone.
“And the importance of tenant choice is really important in somebody's housing success. If you're living somewhere where you want to live, you're a lot more likely to be successful in that housing than if you're living somewhere where you feel like you had to go,” she says.
So, each hotel guest will get three different offers of housing before they’re removed from a priority list. Nicolas Garrett got his first offer late last year. A housing counselor found him a spot at an SRO called the All Star Hotel. He was optimistic at first. Then he says he did more research, went to check it out, and found he’d have to share a bathroom with a bunch of people, plus he’d have to pay $500 a month.
“How do you expect someone to pay at least a portion of rent to stay in a place that's basically a homeless shelter? So, yeah, I opted out of that and as far as I know, I still have two more choices.
I’ve heard similar stories about other hotel residents. They’ve lived for a year with their own bathroom and weekly care from nurses. It’s difficult to transition into something that could seem like a step down.
“I at least want to have my own bathroom, and I mean that’s like that's mandatory,” he says.
But Emily Cohen says the hotels are actually closing, and this is a rare opportunity for people to end their own homelessness.
“We have some work to do to ensure that the housing we offer people is as nice as the hotels we had the opportunity to offer people. And that's really when we look at new acquisitions,” she says.
That means places in different neighborhoods across the city, with private bathrooms, and elevators. And the timing’s right. The city can access nearly a billion dollars from 2018’s Proposition C. It could allow the city to secure 100s of new permanent supportive housing units, add mental health support services, even purchase another hotel. And she says it's equally important to house the thousands of other individuals who didn’t get a spot in the hotels. The details were just approved in the new city budget.
“Some people who had been outside for a very long time got a taste of the safety and security of indoors. And we want to work with them in this moment to move them permanently out of homelessness...to really help us all think about housing as part of our healthcare system,” she says.
Nicolas also recognizes the gravity of it all.
“This whole thing can be really revolutionary, you know, as far as, like, civic policies go. Or it could go back to just the way things were…”
He says some people inside his hotel are hopeful, with a fair amount of skepticism. He says he’ll believe it when he sees it, when he gets a set of keys to a new place.