They emerged during COVID pandemic. What's next for SF's lifesaving hotels turned homeless shelters?

ByKen Miguel and Phil Matier KGO logo
Friday, July 29, 2022
What's next for SF's lifesaving hotels turned homeless shelters?
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco created lifesaving hotels and turned them into homeless shelters. But what happens to them now?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- When COVID first emerged San Francisco sprang into action replacing tourists in hotels with homeless from the streets.

ABC7 Insider Phil Matier was among the first reporters to go inside one of these "Shelter-In-Place" facilities.

Nearly a year-and-a-half later, many of those facilities are preparing to shut down. He went back recently to get a look at how things were going.

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Sometimes the way we build a better Bay Area happens by accident. When the pandemic struck - tourism was decimated. Small hotels jumped at the chance at filling rooms to keep from going under. It was a social experiment that was born out of necessity but appears to have paved the road to building some real solutions to the city's homeless crisis.

We went back to one of those hotels turned homeless shelters and found things still running smoothly, the lessons learned forcing the city to re-evaluate many of the ways it tried to get people off the streets.

Phil Matier: What have you learned in the last 18 months? What's worked and what hasn't?

Steve Good: I truly believe the shelter-in-place hotels are working, and you can look at the streets and see that the streets are much cleaner right now. We don't want to go backward to a time when the streets are filled with tents. Yeah. But we've also learned that you know, mental illness and drug addiction is something that the city, in fact, California is not addressing adequately.

Steve Good is CEO of Five Keys, the nonprofit that runs this tourist hotel turned homeless shelter. Before the pandemic, rooms in this hotel would go for $200 to $300 a night. But when the pandemic hit - tourism dried up. Seeing the need to house people who were filling the streets of the Tenderloin District, 25 small hotel operators jumped at the chance to rent rooms.

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Phil Matier: Have the hotels helped? They've gotten the people off the streets. But what about that second part, the mental health and the addiction?

Steve Good: Yeah, it's a huge problem that still needs to be addressed. I mean, the hotels are hoping to help in five hey ways. In the last couple of years have rehoused 290 people to permanent housing, San Francisco alone has rehoused almost 1,200 individuals to permanent housing. I mean, these are people that were on the streets, they actually now have a permanent place to live.

Phil Phil Matier: Yeah, but we're talking about 1000s of people still on the streets. Let's go on upstairs.

It is just like any other hotel.

Steve Good: And this is one of our rooms.

Phil Matier: There, we're still getting three meals a day?

Steve Good: So again, three meals a day and you get your own TV.

Phil Matier: So you get your own TV and get your own bathroom.

Steve Good: Own bathroom.

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Phil Matier: I understand one of the problems we're having with the hotels is that the rooms get trashed. Is that true?

Steve Good: Unfortunately, that's a reality. I mean, you take somebody that potentially has a pet suffering from a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse, who has been living on the streets for years and has not taken care of themselves. Put them in a room and it can be quite challenging. What you and I might perceive as garbage. Those are their belongings.

Phil Matier: Okay, so we put them in a room like this. We give them meals, do they get any services? Do they get help? Or is this just a place to get them off the street?

Steve Good: Now everybody's assigned to a case manager and one of the main focuses of case management is trying to stabilize them and get them to a place where we could rehouse them in a permanent situation.

For the residents of these shelter-in-place hotels, this is home for the time being.

Steve Good: The typical profile of one of our guests is, you know, we operate at about 60% male and 30% female. I'd say the average range is a middle-aged person somewhere in their 40s. Really middle-aged. Yeah, but on the streets for you know, many years.

Phil Matier: James, it's nice to meet you. How long have you been living here?

James: Two months.

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For people like James, these hotels provide a temporary home.

Phil Matier: How do you spend your days?

James: Most of the time I go out looking for jobs, or I visit my granddaughter.... she's doing what do you call it, talent, she's going to summer camp now.

Phil Matier: Thanks for your time, thanks for showing me your home.

Daniel: You want to actually go inside?

Phil Matier: Yeah - if we could.

For others, the shelter provides stability. Daniel has been here since the beginning of June.

Phil Matier: Tell me, what do you like it or not like here?

Daniel: I love it here, nah - it's a great place. I mean off the streets - anything off the streets is great.

Phil Matier: And what brought you to the streets?

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Daniel: It was money. I was just, I was in financial debt, and I couldn't pay and then I lost my car. I totaled it in Nashville. And then I ended up coming over here by bus. And I was on the street since.

Phil Matier: So you're from that Tennessee belt from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Nashville? And then you came to San Francisco and what brought you here the idea that they would be able to help you?

Daniel: No, no, I was just, I was looking. I was just, I was trying to get away from I guess, my past. And I was just looking for a safe city.

Phil Matier: Where do you hope to go from here, or do?

Daniel: Yeah - a job, I am reconnecting with my family, you know, I am hoping to be a functioning member of society and contribute in the best way that I can.

This program doesn't come cheap, by the time you add in the services and the room costs, and you're looking at about $250 a night per person.

Phil Matier: Do you think this is going to be a permanent solution?

Steve Good: Well, part of it is so at the height of the pandemic, the city had 25 hotels, approximately 2,500 rooms and they were sheltering almost 4,000 individuals. So that's 2,500 folks out off the streets. Right now, seven CIP hotels and Shelter in Place hotels remain. And the city's purchasing or has purchased eight hotel properties which are going to be permanent supportive housing. You have 1,000 rooms, and you've placed 1,200 people into other housing solutions. That's 2,000 folks that are housed that wouldn't have been housed, had it been not for a pandemic.

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Steve Good tells us, the pandemic reminded us that homelessness isn't going anywhere - pandemic or not - people will always need help. Some of the people who call this hotel home will always need public assistance. Letting people deal with the alternative - the streets - are not the solution.

Steve Good: people have to come to realize that this is going to be a long-term problem, this is going to be a lifelong commitment for many individuals here, the city, the state is going to have to, you know...

Phil Matier: Adopt them.

Steve Good: ...going to have to have to adopt and until we get some sort of mandated treatment, some sort of better approach for mental illness and drug abuse. This is what we're going to have. And these folks are going to be with us forever. That's just the way it is.

Phil Matier: Just one walk down the block shows there are more people in need of something like this. But what is the future? The program has been questioned about how long the federal funding is going to last.

Steve Good: Yeah, it's not cheap.

Phil Matier: What do you see?

Steve Good: Well, the hotels are definitely winding down. Most of the SIP hotels will be closed, come next fall, but with bringing on, you know, eight new properties for permanent supportive housing, which will be a long-term commitment, because it's subsidized housing. That's part of the solution. Folks that are here our priority is to get them rehoused through problem-solving, Rapid Rehousing, or permanent supportive housing, a lot of them will end up just back in another shelter, you know, quite frankly, because there just isn't enough housing for the folks living on the streets. And there are not enough services.

This hotel is scheduled to be turned back over to the owners next June. It will get a deep cleaning before it once again becomes a tourist hotel. So where will these people go? The answer? The next generation of these hotels turned into shelters...permanent supportive housing.

Phil Matier: Well this is certainly a step up.

Steve Good: It's nice, right?

Phil Matier: Yeah!

Steve Good: The truth is if you are going to rehouse someone you have to rehouse them in a nice place. Nobody wants to move into a dump. If we want to get people off the streets, it has to be someplace that is appealing and pleasing.

This is one of the former tourist hotels that the city purchased for housing. It is simple. There's a community kitchen and dining room. Even a place to hang out. Everyone gets their own room and bathroom.

Phil Matier: How are you doing?

David: I am doing fine.

Phil Matier: I'm Phil.

David: I am still unpacking.

David has bounced around the shelter system for years. At 66 - he says he's done with drugs and the streets.

Phil Matier: Do you think you are going to stay here?

David: I am going to stay here as long as I can.

David is exactly the kind of person who will likely succeed here. A case manager will check in on him periodically to make sure he stays stable.

Steve Good: We don't want to see folks returning to the streets that would be the exact opposite of what we're trying to accomplish.

Phil Matier: Where do you go from here? Or do we? What is it this it?

Steve Good: This is it and the goal is to keep providing the support that they need to be able, to remain here and be successful.

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