The SF Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an expansion of the shelter-in-place hotel program for the homeless, adding 400 more hotel rooms to the 1,800 currently in use.

The vote comes two weeks after the proposal was first floated by several supervisors, and after getting assurance from the Biden administration that FEMA will be fully reimbursing cities for these programs retroactive to January 2020.

"Since the start of this pandemic, we successfully got hundreds of people off the street and into hotel rooms to safely shelter in place," said Supervisor Hillary Ronen in a statement to KPIX. "This has saved countless lives. With the federal government reimbursing the city 100% of the costs, there is no excuse for us to leave our most vulnerable outdoors. We can and must do the right thing and house as many people as possible during this pandemic."

The program, known as the COVID-19 Alternative Housing System, began moving unhoused individual off city streets last spring. It was estimated to be costing the city $18 million per month, but City Controller Ben Rosenfield now says that the entire program will cost the city only $3 million in total for the fiscal year, after federal reimbursement.

The program has not been able to provide space to every person who was homeless in the city before the pandemic, but it has focused on those who were most vulnerable to contracting a serious case of COVID-19. And while new people likely arrived on SF's streets over the last year, Mayor London Breed has previously said that the hotel program was reserved primarily for individuals who were already in the city's system and receiving other services.

Of the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people on the streets as of early last year, 2,186 are currently placed in alternative housing like hotel rooms. This number will go up by 500 to 700, with the 400 new rooms coming available.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing says that of the over 2,000 individuals who sheltered in hotel rooms last year, 148 have now been placed either in permanent supportive housing or otherwise re-housed. The department has committed to not putting anyone back on the street after they have been housed in a hotel.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, called the FEMA funding "a game changer" in speaking with the SF Public Press last month, and she said, "his is absolutely an unprecedented opportunity. There’s still today just as strong a reason that every San Franciscan has the opportunity to shelter in place as there was back in March."

Friedenbach also argued against the idea that the city shouldn't be temporarily housing anyone it can't promise more permanent housing to.

"The Department of Homelessness’ argument as I hear it, is that it’s better to keep people on the streets to suffer through the pandemic, than it is to put them in housing, with the result of them looking bad if they don’t have housing at the end," Friedenbach said. "The city’s image problems are less important than people’s lives. I think if we have the opportunity to move into housing now, we should do that."

The exact number of people living on SF's streets can't really be known. And the scheduled biennial point-in-time census that typically gives federal, state and local officials a rough estimate was canceled this year due to COVID concerns, and it's not clear when it will next occur.

Also, not everyone living on the streets has been keen to move into these hotels. As SFist columnist Elliott Jones reported in November, some individuals see the rules at these hotel shelters as oppressive and jail-like, and they prefer having the freedom of staying on their own on the street.

Photo: Markus Spiske