San Francisco had a homeless population of 8,035 as of 2019, according to city data. Roughly two thirds of that population was unhoused. (Photo via Christopher Michel/Flickr)

Homeless advocates in San Francisco on Wednesday called on the city to purchase more hotels to continue to house the city’s homeless residents as the COVID-19 pandemic endures.

The call to purchase the Shelter-In-Place, or SIP, hotels comes just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced earlier this month it would reimburse local governments 100 percent for the cost of hotels, retroactive to January 2020.

According to the advocacy group Coalition on Homelessness, the FEMA reimbursement provides an unexpected windfall for the city, freeing up some $83 million that could be used to purchase SIP hotels and convert them into studio apartments and provide permanent supportive housing.

So far, the city has already purchased two hotels for housing. Back in October, using $29 million in funding from the state’s Project Homekey program, the city was able to buy both the Hotel Diva and the Granada hotel, totaling 362 rooms combined.

“We are really thrilled with this announcement that FEMA made that there is this reimbursement happening. We are also deeply concerned that this money will simply be sucked back into the city budget to correct deficits that the city is facing,” COH executive director Jennifer Friedenbach said. “We feel really strongly that this is funding that is homeless dollars and should be used and was budgeted for unhoused people.”

Friedenbach added that their group has heard from about 70 hotels that are interested in selling or leasing property to the city for housing.

“This really presents a unique opportunity that’s maybe once in a lifetime. We never imagined that we’d have hotels that we’d be able to purchase,” she said.

“The reason the hotels are so exciting is that they’re less than half the cost per unit, including rehabilitation, on average than new construction,” Friedenbach said.

“We could have unhoused people in there within 90 days, if the city moves quick enough, or within 120 days instead of four to five years with new construction. So, there’s just so many opportunities with these hotels to move the dial on homelessness,” she said.

The COH, along with more than 50 other local organizations, have sent a letter to Mayor London Breed, urging the city use the windfall of FEMA reimbursements to purchase hotels for the homeless and that the city continue housing more homeless people, including those on the streets and in city-sanctioned Safe Sleeping Villages.

“We have an opportunity here to do something meaningful in the near term to get more people off the street. It would be unconscionable to not take that opportunity,” Hospitality House executive director Joe Wilson said. “We need to devote all of our resources and capacity to get folks off the street. It’s not enough to have people in safe sleeping villages.

They are still outdoors; they are still subject to the elements. We have the wherewithal to do better.”

Through the SIP hotel program, the city currently provides about 1,850 hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, including families, transitional aged youth and single adults, many of whom have a pre-existing health conditions or are 65 and older.