Hotels for homeless face setbacks
Many programs’ lack of accountability can hurt the people they are meant to help
The tent that Pauline Levinson erected in the middle of her hotel room was meant to protect her from rodents. The California woman was one of several residents living in poor conditions in San Francisco’s permanent supportive housing hotels for the homeless. Another resident, a man, died in his room without anyone knowing until his body began to stink. Broken elevators stranded disabled residents.
Those stories, reported in a yearlong investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle, revealed that hotels for homeless men and women, funded by the city of San Francisco and operated by nonprofits, are infested with rodents, crime, and death. The report showcased the failure of the city’s initiative to house roughly 6,000 people in about 70 single-room occupancy hotels in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood infamous for its crime, drugs, and homelessness.
The hotels were home to less than 1 percent of the city’s population and 14 percent of the city’s overdose deaths in 2020 and 2021. The hotels were a key component of San Francisco’s permanent supportive housing initiative, a $160 million program overseen by the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH).
Homelessness has increased by 56 percent since San Francisco officials established HSH in 2016, and the hotels have done little to stop it. Most have few requirements for the tenants who move in and little accountability to ensure they are accessing the services they need. Residents simply move from streets to a hotel room and still find themselves stuck. As cities around the country open their own hotels for the homeless, experts warn that without personal help and accountability, these initiatives won’t fare much better than the dilapidated hotels in the Tenderloin.
Initiatives to house the homeless in hotels expanded during the pandemic in part because more emergency shelters struggled to operate under COVID-19 restrictions and with fewer volunteers. Some Christian nonprofits also rely on hotels for homeless placements. Congress’ 2020 pandemic relief bill allocated $4 billion to local governments to help the homeless. President Joe Biden in March 2021 signed the American Rescue Plan Act , which included $5 billion in new funding to reduce homelessness and develop noncongregate shelter units like hotels.
Backed by pandemic relief funds, cities stepped up their efforts to convert hotels into supportive housing. The San Francisco HSH nearly doubled its budget from $600 million in 2020 to $1.1 billion last year. Mayor London Breed has promised to buy hotels with private bathrooms and kitchenettes if possible and to provide new hotels with larger annual budgets. Owning rather than leasing the buildings will allow the city to update the facilities more easily. But most of the budget will fund new programs instead of providing residents in dilapidated hotels with the services and upgrades they need. Elsewhere in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently expanded his homeless housing initiative by $2.75 billion to convert more hotels, motels, and vacant apartments into housing units for the homeless.
New York last year passed legislation to incentivize the conversion of hotels and other commercial properties into supportive housing. According to local news reports, the city’s homeless hotels have had similar problems with violence and drugs. In 2020, Oregon began to refurbish hotels under Project Turnkey, as did Vermont, Hennepin County, Minn., and Phoenix, Ariz. Similar efforts are underway in Austin, Texas.
The expensive projects involve a lot of hidden costs, said Michele Steeb, a homelessness expert for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She pointed to a “lack of transparency around these projects.”
The city of Austin is converting three hotels into permanent supportive housing for the homeless. About 190 new rooms will be available by the end of June. The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition will assign the units to residents based on need. Matt Mollica, the organization’s executive director, said the hotels will be run differently from the ones in San Francisco. Services such as behavioral and mental healthcare and case management will be available onsite at certain hours. A property site manager will be available 24/7.
The project will have few requirements of tenants, except that they must have experienced chronic homelessness for at least 12 consecutive months or four times in the last three years totaling 12 months. If they have an income, they must contribute 30 percent to rent. If not, they can still stay as long as needed for free. Tenants cannot be disruptive, but cleanliness and sober living is not required. Mollica said that rather than mandating services, they will “provide the types of services that people are asking for,” allowing residents to drive the process.
Under Housing First models like the one in Austin, residents are not required to submit to case management, mental healthcare, or addiction rehabilitation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t specifically designate funds for services under the pandemic relief acts. Instead, city governments provide them.
Yet Steeb points out that more than 75 percent of homeless people have a substance addiction, a mental health disorder, or a physical disability. And 50-75 percent of the mentally ill suffer from “anosognosia,” a lack of awareness about their condition and what they need. Others simply choose not to ask for services. If people don’t ask, the nonprofits running hotel facilities have little incentive to provide them.
When residents fail to address the root causes of their homelessness, they are no closer to a permanent housing solution — and end up needing continued support. “There’s never going to be enough money to keep this model going,” Steeb argued.
East County Transitional Living Center, a Christian nonprofit that transformed a truck-stop motel in El Cajon, Calif., into a life transformation program, takes a different approach that emphasizes accountability. Residents, both men and women, participate in four phases and are expected to pay rent after the first 28 days once they begin working. The final phase focuses on finding full-time employment. Residents work with a case manager.
Director of operations Ivan Andujar said the ministry’s approach is about “peeling back the onion” and working through what brought the resident there. The organization has a zero tolerance drug policy, and residents are subject to random tests. Staffers inspect family rooms once a week to ensure the simple furnishings — two bunk beds, a flat-screen TV, a dorm-size fridge for snacks, and metal racks for storage — are kept neat and orderly. Rooms for single men and women are checked daily.
In this model, challenging the residents to take responsibility is key. “We won’t hold your hand through the process,” said Andujar. “We’re going to give you the tools … and dust you off if you mess up.”
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