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Supes, service providers stunned at mayor’s plan to close homeless hotels


The Board of Supes heard some stunning admissions from the Mayor’s Office Tuesday, and most of the news media don’t seem to have noticed.

The full board, sitting as a Committee of the Whole, spent more than three hours hearing from the director of homelessness and supportive housing, Abigail Stewart Kahn, the controller, Ben Rosenfield, and people who are front-line service providers.

At issue was the Mayor’s Office plan to start closing down shelter-in-place hotels and moving some 2,400 homeless people somewhere else – as many as 500 rooms could be emptied by the end of the year.

The hotel room program is a great success; why is the city moving to end it now?

The problem is nobody seems to know where “somewhere else” is.

The service providers all begged the city to slow the process down. Many of the supervisors had detailed questions.

And here is what we learned:

  • The mayor’s “plan,” such as it is, was conceived and prepared with absolutely no input from front-line service providers – the folks who actually work with and house homeless people. Joe Wilson, director of Hospitality House, testified that he first learned of the completed plan through an email late on a Friday night. Stewart-Kahn acknowledged that no member of the Board of Supervisors was involved in the actual drafting of the plan.
  • There is no compelling reason to start shutting down the hotels – except, in theory, for the cost. The city has budgeted $174 million for the program, Rosenfield said, and somewhere between $3 and $4.8 million comes from the city’s General Fund. The rest is federal and state money. And Rosenfield said that while the federal money will end at some point, there is no evidence that it will end anytime soon. Meanwhile, the city now has hundreds of millions of dollars from Prop. C to spend on programs like this one.
  • The Mayor’s Office, despite plenty of notice about the hearing, failed to provide any of the financial details of the plan, or the need for the plan. Sup. Hillary Ronen asked how she could evaluate the situation without that data; Board President Norman Yee said “I don’t even have the information to guess.” Rosenfield and Stewart Kahn said they would provide it later – although the supervisor who asked for the hearing made it clear he wanted it in advance. “We requested a detailed fiscal analysis,” Sup. Shamann Walton said. “It’s hard to accept this horrible fiscal problem without that information available to us.”
  • There is, quite literally, nowhere for the 2,400 people to go that is safe and protected from the elements as winter arrives. “There are no alternatives,” Ronen said. “The shelters are full. Shared sleeping spaces are even more expensive.”  Or as Wilson put it: “The takeaway is that moving 2,400 people [into permanent housing] in the next eight months is implausible and incredulous.” Walton: “We can’t set a date for closing the hotels without knowing where they will go.”
  • The presentation was misleading, as best. Stewart Kahn told the board that although every service provider who testified strongly opposed the plan, there are “some providers” who support the idea. Sup. Aaron Peskin noted: “I have spoken to them all, and with all due respect, Ms. Stewart-Kahn is the only one who says that.”
  • Stewart-Kahn acknowledged that – since the city clearly has to money to keep the program going – a major reason to end it is that people in hotel rooms have “no motivation to take steps to exit homelessness.” In other words: If we don’t threaten to take their rooms away, they won’t cooperate with social workers: “They need to engage with a sense of urgency,” she said.
  • There are, as Sup. Dean Preston pointed out, at least 6,000 more people who are homeless on the streets right now – and there’s no plan to put them into safe shelter. “It’s not a wise time to be scaling down and closing,” he said.

The homeless service providers and many of the supes were, it’s fair to say, stunned with what they were hearing.

The hearing started out with Stewart Kahn and Rosenfield talking about the cost of the program, which can run as high as $8,000 a month per person.

Their message: We just can’t keep doing this.

But under questioning, they acknowledged that the federal government pays 75 percent of the cost of sheltering anyone who is over 60 or has other COVID risk factors – and that’s 85 percent of the population in hotels.

So the cost to the city is pretty low.

Rosenfield warned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is putting up the money, only renews its contracts on a month-to-month basis, so it could end at any time. But he also admitted that he has seen no evidence or warning that it will end this year – and next year, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be in the White House, and it’s highly unlikely they will cut off this funding.

Preston also pointed out that – while the Mayor’s Office and other resisted the hotel plan, saying it wouldn’t work and would be too expensive, it’s actually been one of the most successful homeless programs in the city’s modern history.

It works. There have been very few problems or complaints. In fact, Ronen noted, the board passed legislation mandating that 6,000 more hotel rooms be opened up, which the mayor refused to do. (The Mayor’s Office says the supes never put up the funding for that program, but again: Most of the money is federal, and the local funding that’s needed is what we call “decimal dust” in a $12 billion budget.)

So why are we preparing to wind down this program now – not only in the winter, when it is cold and rainy and people on the streets are at higher risk of health problems, but at a time when COVID is roaring back to the extent that the mayor has institution new restrictions on re-opening?

Nobody outside of Room 200 seems to be able to comprehend that.

The service providers at the hearing were unanimous that they had no role in crafting the plan. When Preston asked Stewart Kahn about that, she said “it depends on what you mean in the development of the plan.” In other words: We did the plan, “because of the fiscal constraints,” then told everyone else about it.

I felt bad for her. She’s a social worker with the misfortune to be the mayor’s point person who has to defend something indefensible. Breed, of course, wasn’t at the hearing.

One of the few supervisors who seemed to support the mayor’s plan was Rafael Mandelman, who said that at some point, we need to start winding this down.

Preston noted that the projections of the local cost to keeping the program going are so small that “this is unbelievably cost-effective.” In fact, some of the supes suggested, we should be expanding the program.

There’s good reason to believe that the state and the feds will soon have more money to buy more of these hotels, and turn them into permanent housing.

Rosenfield said that the FEMA money could run out at any point. But when Preston asked if there was any sign of that happening, Rosenfield said “we don’t know.”

And, of course, FEMA will not reimburse the city for things like safe-sleeping villages, which are basically tent encampments, bring their own high costs. At several front-line service agency representatives noted, the plan is unconscionable. And yet, it goes forward.


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