States and Cities Turn to Empty Hotel Rooms to House Homeless and People Ill With Coronavirus

A homeless man sits in a tent in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, March 20, 2020. Gov. Gavin Newsom has authorized $150 million in emergency funding to protect homeless people in the state from the spread of COVID-19.

A homeless man sits in a tent in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, March 20, 2020. Gov. Gavin Newsom has authorized $150 million in emergency funding to protect homeless people in the state from the spread of COVID-19. AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

Hotel rooms left vacant as people stopped traveling because of the coronavirus could be used to house mildly ill patients and homeless people currently living outside or in shelters.

The coronavirus outbreak increasingly has government officials around the U.S. looking to deserted hotels as places to house patients, homeless people, and those in need of somewhere to stay while they adhere to quarantine guidelines.

Local officials in San Francisco are working to secure hotel rooms for certain homeless people and others. The city put out a request, seeking to rent rooms in bulk and about 30 hotels responded with offers to make upwards of 8,000 rooms available. The city will need to assess how many of these rooms can actually be used to house people. 

Trent Rhorer, director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, explained on Monday that the city would prioritize the rooms for specific groups of people who are in need of space to be in quarantine, so that they avoid the risk of spreading the virus.

These people include those living in homeless shelters and residents in single room occupancy settings, with facilities like shared bathrooms and kitchens areas. They also include homeless individuals who are in hospitals and need to quarantine, but who don’t need extensive medical care—the idea here is to free-up hospital space.

There are also plans to make rooms available to local first responders and health care workers who need to go into quarantine, but do not wish to return to their homes. These workers could also use the rooms to avoid the risk of infection that might exist where they normally live.

Rhorer estimated that the city would need between 4,000 and 4,500 hotel rooms, and said that by the end of Monday it anticipated having about 320 rooms.

Hotels around the U.S. have seen business crater as millions of people limit their movement outside of their homes and avoid crowds to help curb the virus’ spread. Much of the nation’s normal business and leisure travel is grinding to a halt, leaving thousands of rooms empty.

“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including September 11th and the great recession of 2008 combined,” Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association said earlier this week.

At the same time, governments are scrambling to find places to house people.

A group of San Francisco supervisors is pushing to more aggressively use hotels to provide housing for homeless people, while the public health crisis plays out. But Mayor London Breed has cautioned that the city needs to avoid promising more than it can follow through on.

One of the supervisors, Hillary Ronen, said the city now has about 30,000 empty hotel rooms, but also thousands of people living on the streets or in “congregate” living arrangements.

“We should move them into those rooms,” she said during an online press conference on Monday. “Money should not be an object, prejudices should not be an object,” Ronen added. “If there’s housing available, get people into those units that don’t have housing.”

Ronen referenced an agreement with city agency officials to shift towards a strategy of housing homeless people in hotels, if they can take care of themselves and are considered vulnerable to the virus because they are older, or have underlying health conditions. 

She added that she and the other supervisors favored expanding this approach to also include younger and healthier homeless people.

"Congregate living situations are among the most dangerous places to be,” she said.

Ronen and another supervisor, Dean Preston, said that, under the circumstances, they believe that the city has the power to “commandeer” hotel rooms to house people. But they also indicated that they’re not at the point where they’re ready to pursue that option. 

"We have an ability to commandeer hotel rooms if we must,” Ronen said. “We hope we don't have to.”

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Monday the city had reached agreements with local hotel operators to provide more than 1,000 rooms for people exposed to the coronavirus or mildly ill from it, but who don’t need hospital care to safely quarantine.

Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that he had been speaking to hotel owners about “taking over their hotels to put patients in” as the state looks to find beds for all of the people who are coming down with the disease and need care.

Cuomo said the state has about 53,000 hospital beds, but anticipates needing about 140,000. The governor is calling on hospitals to increase capacity, and other temporary emergency facilities are coming online. But he said these measures on their own will not be enough.

“I will turn this state upside down to get the number of beds we need,” Cuomo added.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that the state would provide $150 million for local emergency actions related to homelessness during the public health crisis.

That sum includes $50 million to purchase travel trailers and to lease rooms in hotels, motels, and other facilities for homeless individuals who need a place to be isolated. 

As of early last week, the state had executed hotel leases for two properties and planned to transfer control of them to Alameda County. This included 393 hotel rooms in Oakland.

Asked during a press conference on Monday if the city would look to expand its hotel housing program for the homeless to include groups beyond those Rhorer had outlined, Breed said that the city was “only going to communicate exactly what we are able to deliver on.”

She noted that renting out the hotel space involves a host of complications, like dealing with hotel worker labor unions, navigating insurance requirements, ensuring there is adequate security, and providing access to basics like food and laundry.

Rhorer, meanwhile, said that best practices for outdoor homeless populations during the public health crisis do not call for effectively moving encampments indoors. 

Instead, he said, they advise that local governments take steps like dispatching teams to ensure there is distance between people and tents, and that there are ways to keep up proper hygiene.

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Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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