Why US cities haven't just given every homeless person a hotel room during the pandemic

A homeless person sleeps on a loading dock in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Latanya Wilson is no stranger to life on the street. She’s been unhoused in San Francisco, California, on and off, for 15 years.

But sleeping outdoors during a pandemic is unlike anything she’s experienced.

“I’m really scared being out here,” says Wilson, who is living in a green two-person Coleman camping tent in the Mission neighbourhood. “You can go to sleep and anyone can come up and unzip the tent”.

Wilson says there are far fewer pedestrians on the street to ask for food or change, although occasionally people drive up and offer help. Going to the long-established Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, where showers and case workers are available, is a newly harrowing effort because the entry line is so long. 

“I know they are helping,” Wilson says of city authorities. “But help a little more, please, help a little more with the food and the resources”.

San Francisco quickly and aggressively adopted strategies that have since become the coronavirus playbook for addressing homelessness, moving many of the most vulnerable and potentially exposed people into hotel rooms before other cities did. 

But Wilson is largely unaware of these interventions, perhaps because at the age of 42 she doesn’t meet San Francisco's criteria for vulnerability. She’s heard rumors about the city’s efforts to help the homeless during the pandemic, but hasn't seen much outreach from aid workers. 

“When I was downtown, this one girl told me about the Ramada or somewhere, that they were helping out couples and a few other people,” said Wilson.  

San Francisco was the most aggressive jurisdiction to take up California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey, which funnels federal and state funds to local governments to rent unused hotel rooms to house the most vulnerable homeless residents. To get a room, a person has to test positive, be over the age of 60, or have been exposed to an infected person. 

Over 1,500 rooms have been rented by the city to house the homeless and other needy populations, where residents can get three meals a deal and their own bathrooms. That’s far beyond what other cities in California have accomplished so far. About 25% of the hotel rooms obtained for the state’s homeless population, so far, have been given to individuals in San Francisco, according to Mayor London Breed. San Francisco accounts for approximately 5% of the state’s overall homeless population. 

“The work of opening a permanent supportive housing site, which are very similar to the hotels that we are opening, can take nine months to a year on a regular basis,” says Emily Cohen, interim director of strategy and external affairs for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “Now, we're opening these things in three or four days”.

The city also set up 15 outdoor bathrooms and 30 hand washing stations in addition to the existing 25 locations in the Pitstop Program. It ended its policy of breaking up encampments of homeless people, in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

San Francisco's blueprint is similar to programs that have since been set up in many major cities. Outdoor restrooms are being installed, shelter populations thinned, encampments policies softened, and hotel rooms rented for those who have to quarantine.

These strategies aren’t unprecedented. In recent years, municipal governments have rolled out public hand washing stations and easily cleaned outdoor bathrooms in an effort to ameliorate the pre-pandemic homelessness crisis. In cities such as New York and Boston, with cold winters and large unsheltered populations, authorities have rented small numbers of hotel rooms when shelters get overwhelmed. 

But these pandemic-related interventions are on a different order of magnitude. 

“[Renting hotel rooms] has never been used at the scale that we're seeing now and with the speed of procurement,” says Samantha Batko, a research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. “We are also seeing a level of personal hygiene accessibility for unsheltered people being deployed at a scale that we have not previously seen”.

San Francisco's response is one of the most aggressive in the US, but advocates and the city’s Board of Supervisors argue it isn’t nearly enough to address the full scope of the challenge presented by Covid-19. In early April, an outbreak rapidly spread through the Multi-Services Center (MSC) South, the city’s largest homeless shelter, resulting in over 100 residents and 10 staff members being infected. 

Advocates had been warning such an outcome was inevitable as long as shelters remained the principal way the city housed the homeless. Covid-19 appears to be especially virulent in confined, congregate settings like prisons, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. 

That’s why an April report from the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health recommended that hotel rooms be used “not just for quarantine and isolation,” but for housing all the region’s homeless people.  

After all, San Francisco still has 30,000 vacant hotel rooms, and at least 8,000 homeless people who are not in quarantine or isolation.

The alternative is leaving unhoused residents in shelters, where outbreaks like the one at MSC South are a continual danger despite the city’s effort to de-densify the population. On the streets, meanwhile, people like Wilson are exposed to the elements and cannot access the levels of food and assistance that they normally would.

The existing policy will make both homeless people and the general population more vulnerable, advocates argue.  

“In past epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis homeless folks would carry these diseases longer than the general population,” says Chris Herring, an organizer with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and a Ph.D candidate at UC Berkeley who contributed to the School of Public Health’s report. “When we have something so contagious, I'm concerned that if we don't squash the virus [among this population], we might not be able to fully open up”. 

San Francisco isn't the only city where debate is raging over hotel housing for the homeless. New York Council Speaker Corey Johnson and his allies want the city to do the same. Close to 6,000 people are already being sheltered in hotel rooms, but an estimated 17,000 remain in shelters. At least 43 homeless people have died of the disease in New York City so far. (San Francisco officials say they have not been tracking Covid-19 deaths specifically among homeless people.) 

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration says the city cannot afford the expense of moving the entire homeless population into hotel rooms. The mayor’s office says it could cost the city $82 million a month, at a time when it is already facing a dire budgetary shortfall as the result of declining revenues and increasing service expenditures. In San Francisco, it would cost $58.6 million a month.

Federal aid would be needed to support such an outlay, city leaders argue. But signals from the national government have been mixed. 

The CARES Act stimulus contained $12.4 billion to help cities address homelessness, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been issuing guidance to encourage cities not to break up tent encampments during the pandemic. But local jurisdictions have mostly been left to make their own way, and many cities have not been utilizing hotel rooms at all.

From Oklahoma City to Fort Lauderdale, many municipal governments have reportedly not yet rented rooms. The US's fifth largest city, Phoenix, only started utilizing hotel rooms last week. 

“We're in a build-the-plane-while-you-are-flying-it mode here,” says Dennis Culhane, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “Local governments have such limited capacity and there's not clear federal leadership on how communities should be doing this. Everyone's figuring it out on their own, which is not ideal”.

Back in San Francisco, officials say that for now they do not have plans to expand their hotel housing plan to shelter the entirety of the city’s homeless population. But they will soon move to open a hotel for unaccompanied youth. 

Advocates like Herring say the city could “commandeer” the rooms, under a power that city and state executives have during public emergencies. But San Francisco officials are not in a rush to be the first to do so, despite a bill passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors – San Francisco's City Council – which Breed refused to sign. (Breed has argued that it wouldn't be safe to acquire the rooms so quickly, and that the city needs time to ramp up its programme.) 

“The city's approach has been to work with our Hotel Council and our hotel partners to lease as many rooms as possible,” says Cohen. “I don't think we've reached the ceiling on that yet… I strongly suspect that the vast majority of our focus will be on the unsheltered population who meet those vulnerability and age criteria”.

There is still a lot of outreach work to be done even among that population, says Anthony Marshall, who’s lived on the street sporadically for 23 years. He currently resides in a single-room-occupancy hotel called the Altamont.

“The city is doing a good job in terms of, if I raise my hand and say ‘I have it,’ they are right there for you,” says Marshall, a 59-year-old Chicago native. “They started the new hotels, they started a whole bunch of new [stuff] to try to deal with this Covid thing, and I respect them for it”.

But Marshall says that people he knows are apprehensive about going into the city-managed hotel rooms. Even some who meet the age or vulnerability criteria are choosing to remain on the street, unless they feel really sick, for fear of giving up their freedom. 

“What I've been hearing, once you get up there you can’t go anywhere,” says Marshall. “If people are infected, they are treating them like segregation, and they gotta stay in there all day. No one really wants to come around them because they got the virus”.

There can be a complex array of rules at the hotels, depending on the location and company. In some, pets aren’t allowed at all. In others, security standards are strict, and residents are only allowed to leave for 20-minute increments each day. 

Marshall fears that many homeless residents will avoid the accommodations being offered unless they desperately need it, even if they test positive. After all, they can’t be made to check in to a hotel. 

“A whole bunch of homeless people got it, that's what I'm worried about,” says Marshall. “They’re not getting checked up on. These new hotels they’ve got, a lot of people are sceptical and scared about going up there”.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.