Tina Collins (left) and Cynthia Nagendra (right) in front of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative's Covid testing site at St. Anthony's, strategizing about what area Collins' mobile team will cover. Photo by St. Anthony's.

Homeless people in California don’t have to move out of shelter-in-place hotels until the pandemic emergency ends, thanks to a guarantee of federal funding. 

During a California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council Meeting on Friday, participants received a pleasant surprise when Gov. Gavin Newsom jumped in and casually announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had assured ongoing funding for Project Room Key, the statewide program that has placed vulnerable homeless people into hotel rooms during the pandemic. 

“The governor said, ‘Oh, by the way, just heard from FEMA, and they will be permanently funding Project Room Key until the end of pandemic,’” a meeting participant told Mission Local. 

A letter from the governor’s office to the mayors of the state’s largest cities pledged FEMA support “through the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.” 

A letter from FEMA dated Dec.16 stated that administrators should move forward with funding for “non-congregate shelter operations.”

These terms, however, are vague, and city officials are hoping to nail down more specifics. 

But this staves off the greatest anxieties around California housing advocates and local officials, who have been operating with the knowledge that FEMA could give them 30 days’ notice to shut down a program housing thousands of vulnerable people during a pandemic. And, while that dire scenario appears to have been removed from the table, a high degree of uncertainty remains. 

Still, today’s announcement was seen as a positive sign and taken as a relief. 

“It’s a program that works, and it’s undoubtedly saved many lives and protected people from the virus,” Supervisor Matt Haney told Mission Local. “So for me, this means we should not only continue the program, but we should grow it.” 

The governor launched Program Room Key in March and encouraged local counties to adopt it with the promise that FEMA would reimburse local governments 75 percent of the cost. The program also provided meals, laundry and custodial services, and to date is actively housing 10,000 Californians in hotel rooms, and has sheltered more than 22,000 people throughout the pandemic, according to a Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council presentation.  

But fear that FEMA funding would be abruptly curtailed caused state and local officials to consider preemptively winding down the program, which now encompasses at least 29 hotels, and to look into rehousing the people they were temporarily sheltering. 

In November, the San Francisco Human Services Agency released a statement that it planned on moving people out of the shelter-in-place hotels and offering new housing options in place, and would do so in waves. The first group of 500 individuals from seven hotels would be moved out “over the next couple weeks” and the rest would follow in phases until the end of June 2021. 

That induced a backlash among housing advocates who feared that this would result in grave health consequences for the homeless population, especially if people were resettled into congregate shelters. In April, 92 residents and 10 staff members were infected with Covid-19 at MSC South due to the inability to properly socially distance. 

“We are elated. We’re not threatened to put people out on the street tomorrow, because the city was saying if FEMA shuts down Monday, we shut down [our hotels] Tuesday,” said Del Seymour, the founder of the Tenderloin nonprofit Code Tenderloin, which has aided the homeless with Covid-19. 

Desperate for an alternate solution, Haney introduced an emergency ordinance that would prohibit the city from removing homeless people already living in these hotels until there was written notice from FEMA that it would no longer reimburse local governments. The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed it on Tuesday. 

But it looks like, for now, San Francisco won’t need to use it. 

“I didn’t think they would do it,” Seymour said. 

Annika Hom

Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused...

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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3 Comments

  1. YEAH!!! Now we should expand the program to reach other unhoused people on our streets! Originally, the proposal was to house 7,000 people in the SIPs–only 2,400 people are now in the hotels. HSH should act now–this is humane and demonstrates the City’s commitment to the welfare of this population. Additionally, the Shelter Grievance Process needs to cover guests in the SIPs–just like in all the other City shelters.

  2. Breed must be disappointed that the red cape she waved in front of the homeless advocates has been invalidated by the feds. This could have kept the advocates and prog supervisors making runs at the cape for several more months, pinning them down.

    Can we start a betting pool on what outrage Breed will throw next as incoming to the advocates on homelessness that will pin down the progressives and command attention away from most everything else?

    Homelessness truly is the black hole of SF politics as it sucks down resources, time, space and most every other key item on the citywide progressive agenda.

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