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To truly “crush” our COVID-19 response in SF, we need permanent solutions to homelessness – we need Project Home Key

By: Andrea Evans, Campaign Manager, All In

From local papers to international media outlets, San Francisco has been widely praised for its COVID-19 response. Dr. Warner Green, a virologist at San Francisco’s Gladstone Institute, explained that not only has San Francisco (and the entire Bay Area) flattened the curve, we have “crushed” it. While we are not out of the woods yet, we have met this crisis because of strong leadership in all sectors — government, business, non-profit — and the willingness of our fellow residents to sacrifice their livelihoods for the greater good.

As we move from responding to COVID-19 to recovering from it, we will again need to draw on that sense of shared purpose. We must start by acknowledging that housing is health care. COVID-19 has revealed the extent to which the health of our entire community depends on protecting the health of our most vulnerable residents — none of us are safe from highly transmissible diseases like COVID-19 unless all of us are able to take the steps necessary, e.g., sheltering in place, to prevent their spread.

On April 3, 2020, Governor Newsom announced Project Room Key, a statewide effort to lease hotel and motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness to shelter in place during the crisis. San Francisco has embraced Project Room Key, announcing plans to lease 7000 hotel rooms, which was followed by a Board of Supervisors emergency ordinance to lease 8,250 hotel rooms by April 26, 2020.  As of May 8, the City had secured 2,741 hotel rooms, but only about 1,000 homeless residents have relocated to hotels, leaving many unable to follow the City’s own public health guidelines.

Project Room Key is a great first step, offering much needed respite for some of our unsheltered neighbors and front line workers. It is, however, a temporary measure. And, the reality is that even when our “shelter-in-place” is lifted, we can expect future waves of COVID-19 to impact San Francisco and threaten our public health.

Thus, to ensure an effective recovery from COVID-19, we must prioritize strategies that reduce homelessness permanently. We can do that by transforming Project Room Key into Project Home Key: a strategy that utilizes housing as both an immediate solution to COVID-19 and a long-term solution for our homelessness crisis.

San Francisco has thousands of vacant, market rate apartments available to house people experiencing homelessness now, and in the future, as Project Room Key hotel stays end. And, as the housing market cools down, we may have the opportunity to buy or lease some of the hotels now being used for Project Room Key.

Housing is not just the right thing to do, it is cost-effective. Numerous studies have shown that it costs less to house our most vulnerable residents than it does to pay for costs, like emergency room care, associated with living unsheltered lives. Right now, we have philanthropic funds and potentially state and federal dollars that could be used to launch and sustain Project Home Key.

Homelessness has long been the City’s number one challenge. By deploying Project Home Key, we can finally meet that challenge and emerge from this pandemic having ensured that many of our residents never experience homelessness again.

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