San Francisco lags filling hotel rooms to shelter homeless from COVID-19, state data shows

Less than half the hotel and motel rooms earmarked by the state to house homeless people in San Francisco during the coronavirus pandemic actually have people living in them, according to an analysis of state and city data by this news organization. 

As of last week, 1,011 of 2,678 rooms -- or roughly 37% -- were filled in San Francisco, according to data from Project Roomkey, the state program announced last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom to bring in homeless people vulnerable to COVID-19 off the streets. That puts the city far behind several other California counties.

In all, Newsom said his office secured a total of 15,000 hotels and motels, including a contract with Motel 6, to provide safe shelter to people experiencing homelessness throughout the Golden State. 

San Francisco disputes the state's numbers saying they have filled at least 47% because they are including a wider universe of people besides the homeless, which they are calling "vulnerable populations." They also aren't counting rooms set aside for non-homeless people, but which are sitting empty nonetheless.

City officials described vulnerable populations as those who are homeless, those who are marginally housed or in SRO situations where they couldn't socially isolate. Other "high-risk populations" also include essential workers who live in some of the neighborhoods with higher COVID-19 infection rates. 

Trent Rhorer, head of the city's Human Services Agency, argued that the occupancy rate is actually above 50% -- that's when you factor in more than 500 mostly unoccupied rooms set aside for essential workers who didn't want to risk infecting their families at home, and the hundreds of empty rooms reserved in case of a surge in cases.

"So that number is added into the state numbers, when it's really not the group of hotel rooms that we have for homeless individuals," Rhorer said.

Either way, the ratio of hotel rooms occupied by homeless people is lower than neighboring Alameda and Santa Clara counties. Although they have smaller inventory, those counties have filled 77% and 62% of their available rooms respectively.

Hotel occupancy rates through Project Roomkey through May 20, 2020, according to the Office of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Even in Los Angeles, where the homeless population is significantly larger, that county has filled more than half of its hotel rooms designated for homeless people under Project Roomkey, according to data provided by the governor's office.

Los Angeles County has filled 2,463 of the 4,233 rooms, at an occupancy rate of nearly 60%, the numbers show. 

The state hotel occupancy numbers come as health officials this week in San Francisco noted a spike in homeless deaths as an indirect result of the coronavirus pandemic.  

And on Wednesday, a group of political leaders and community activists were out in force, conducting a poll of homeless people along Duboce, Valencia and Cesar Chavez asking questions like, "what do you need to stay safe during COVID-19?" and "have you been offered services such as hotel rooms or housing?"

"Even if they come in for just a little while and have a bed and soap," said Francisco Herrera, co-director of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, who has been pushing to get more vulnerable people into hotel rooms. "That would be helpful." 

The speed of the response under fire

The discrepancy between the state and San Francisco's data launched a fresh debate among San Francisco leadership.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen has been fighting to get more of the city's homeless into hotels and says the mayor's office has been slow to respond.

About a week after Newsom announced the launch of Project Roomkey, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in a parallel but separate move, unanimously passed emergency legislation requiring the city to acquire 8,250 hotel rooms by April 26 for unsheltered residents, first responders and patients leaving hospitals with no suitable place to quarantine.  

That goal has yet to be reached. 

"The fact that we can't even fill the small amount of rooms that we've acquired is really problematic," Ronen said. "We've been hearing non-stop excuses, non-stop. We've been told our county is doing better than anyone else. But, when you actually look at the fact and statistics that's not the case at all."

Supervisor Matt Haney also tweeted out the Project Roomkey data on Tuesday: "We’ve gotten no straight or clear answer as to why these rooms can’t be filled, quicker."

He criticized the city for moving too slowly to fill empty rooms while people are living in tents on the street. 

"HSA really wants to control who gets in and how they get in, to the point that they're creating their own bottlenecks," Haney said.

Rhorer countered that getting people into housing is more time consuming than critics allow for.

"I think when that argument is made it sort of discounts the idea of the importance of doing appropriate assessments of individuals before we place them into hotel rooms," he said.

Mayor London Breed has repeatedly said moving homeless people into hotels isn't a simple task. There are many "wraparound services" that also must be provided in many cases, such as mental, health and social care, and in some cases, even security, she emphasized. 

"It's not as simple as 'We can open up a hotel room' " Breed said in April. "We have to make sure that there are resources there, including food, the cleaning, the security to make sure that they don't leave those locations."

A "bureaucratic black hole"

But the critics, such as Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness, point to a lack of "political will" from San Francisco leadership in making the idea a reality.

Friedenbach said that San Francisco has the legal power to "commandeer" the hotels and simply move unsheltered people into the vacant rooms if it wants.

Friedenbach also said that San Francisco got a late start in trying to move the homeless into hotels, and first tried putting them into mega shelters, some of which had coronavirus outbreaks themselves and had to be shut down.

She pointed to a "bureaucratic black hole" where people living on the streets have "no clear way to get access" to move into a hotel room. 

In addition, Paul Monge, a legislative aide to Ronen, told KTVU that how the hotel contracts were written also likely played a part in the occupancy lag.

From what Monge said he has been told by city staffers, contracts between the city and the hotel management were first written to allow frontline workers to use the hotel rooms, and when those employees didn't get sick as expected, the rooms sat empty. 

Then, the contracts were rewritten to allow essential workers to move into the hotel rooms after a UCSF study showed that this group, comprised predominantly of Latino workers, were getting stricken with coronavirus, Monge said. 

KTVU was unable to confirm the specifics of these contracts. 

"I think it's this lack of flexibility with the contracts that have contributed to these empty rooms," Monge said. "This process has been painfully slow." 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on May 28.