EXCLUSIVE: Inside look at former San Francisco tourist hotel turned into homeless shelter

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As the COVID pandemic subsides and tourism ramps up, the demand for hotel rooms in San Francisco is starting to return - and so are the homeless on the streets.

And while many large hotels have been sitting empty for over a year - some smaller ones took advantage of state and city incentives to house some 2,000 of the homeless in rooms that used to go to tourists. Now there is tax money to buy hotels and use them to permanently house the homeless - which will cost millions of dollars. Is it a possible Path Forward to solving our homeless crisis?

To help answer the question, we decided to visit one of the hotels to take a look at the program, the people is serves and the challenges that may lie ahead.

In a story you'll see only on ABC7 News - we got an exclusive look inside one of these former tourist hotels turned homeless shelter.

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In exchange for access to this hotel, located just a few blocks from Union Square, we were asked to not reveal exactly where it is. It was a real eye-opener. Before the pandemic, rooms in this hotel would go for $200 to $300 a night. That was then. These days, from the second you enter, you know this isn't your average Union Square Hotel.

Wand security checks and temperature checks are required of everyone who comes in.

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It is one of 25 hotels across the city that closed when the pandemic shut down San Francisco then later leased by the city with federal COVID emergency funds to provide shelter for thousands of people who camped out on the streets at the height of the pandemic.

Currently, 79 of the hotel's 96 rooms are occupied.

"It's a come and go situation, folks do transition in and out, but we also need rooms on each floor for an office,' said Steve Good, CEO of Five Keys, the non-profit that runs the hotel.

"It is all part of a coordinated entry system in San Francisco," Good says.

"When the pandemic really started to take hold well over a year ago, the city had to react quickly to get as many of the 6,000 or so homeless people off the streets and it was kind of a win-win because you had the tourist season completely thrown off the cliff, we had caterers and foodservice people out of business, so we had a huge problem with the fear of the threat of COVID, so the city reacted in May and opened a number of hotels and site 35 became one of the shelters in place hotel," Good says.

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What does someone get when they come into a hotel like this: "They all get a private room, some hotels are different than others, but each of these rooms is equipped with at least a double bed. It has a television set, a sink, and a full bathroom.," Good says.

Site 35, as they call it, offers occupants food, laundry, and medical attention. All on-site.

"All the rooms you see have different notations on them, once a day wellness check, cut off 9 p.m., how many guests are in the room, if there are any special needs like medical needs, physical needs or dietary restrictions, or if there is a pet," Good says.

Good said "site 35" is actually one of the calmer homeless hotels.

But it still has issues.

"Guest disputes. sometimes you have couples that are living together in the larger sites, sometimes there might be noise at night, kind of the same sort of thing that you'd see in any household or apartment, it's not that different really," Good says.

There are also mental health and drug issues.

"Unfortunately it is pretty high. You know drug problems and alcohol problems aren't the cause of homelessness per se, however, nowadays with Covid and hotels, were looking upwards of 80-percent are suffering from one or the other or a combination of the two," Good says.

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What about drug overdoses?

"Unfortunately that is a real problem. " Good says.

Drug overdoses are on-trend to break new records in San Francisco. 700 people died in 2020 and more than 250 people already this year. Health officials say it is a byproduct of a Fentanyl crisis sweeping the country. Opening these hotels to the homeless has likely kept them overdosing on the streets.

"We've saved 155 lives," Good says. But they have also lost approximately 20 people to overdoses out of 8 sites in San Francisco.

Violence is rare, the staff here is trained in de-escalation techniques. When they need back up, they have called in the police.

"The big thing is trust and respect. they are human beings," says one staffer as he makes his rounds.

For the residents here, having a roof over their head is better than being exposed to the streets

"It is beautiful - they really treat us - it is a blessing to have these people," said one woman who came into the program after living on the streets for 10 years.

For her and the others, Inside each former hotel room - there is now a home. A home that many do not want to leave - even if it means getting their own apartment.

Good estimates that only about 30 to 40% of the current occupants will ever have the where with all to go it on their own.

"And that might be an optimistic guess," Good says.

Meaning a hotel room - may be the best long-term solution for what many think is a short-term problem.

The upshot: the hotel program will cost about the same per night as the $200 to $300 a night a tourist would spend.

But "we're also providing nursing care, we're providing 24-hour around-the-clock help and support," Good says.

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