'We're not wanted': Homeless people were put in hotels to keep them safe. Now they're being evicted

By Christmas, Christa Gillette could be homeless. Again. 

The 60-year-old legal secretary and her 16-month-old service dog, Shepherd, have been cooped up since April in a San Francisco hotel, a safe refuge in the middle of a deadly pandemic. 

For Gillette, who has been experiencing homelessness on and off since 2004 after a domestic violence dispute, the peach-colored room of her own was a "godsend" to avoid the virus.

"I have finally been able to get some rest," she said.

For nearly a year, San Francisco, like many cities across the U.S., has been housing people experiencing homelessness in motels and hotelswith money officialsreceived from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The federal measure passed in March allocated $150 billion in direct assistance to municipalities for expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency and an additional $4 billion nationwide to shelter the homeless.

In this May 21, 2020, file photo, rectangles designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging social distancing line a city-sanctioned homeless encampment at San Francisco's Civic Center.

Now, with the federal deadline to spend the CARES Act money set to expire by Dec. 31 and amid growing complaints over the costly hotel shelter programs, many city officials are considering putting homeless people back on the streets or in crowded shelters, just as the pandemic is hitting new deadly records. Nearly half of them – about 40% – are Black and already at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus.

“They are telling us we have to be ready to go by Dec. 21. People at the hotel have been so nice and so good to me, I am afraid of where we might end up next," said Gillette, who is Black and uses a wheelchair. She leaves the hotel only sparingly, such as when she went to bury her nephew, who died of COVID-19 at age 40.

Gillette said one of the things she appreciates most is having clean, warm linens, regularly changed out by housekeeping staff – a far cry from the rainy sidewalk she and her dog slept on before a hotel room was assigned. 

Homeless people in other cities have also been told to find alternative shelter. 

A resident enters the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Homeless people sitting outside the upscale property were grounds for a lawsuit urging Mayor Bill de Blasio move the men downtown. A judge granted the men of the Lucerne an interim stay.

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, some homeless people refused to go after city officials said they had to leave the Rodeway Inn and Suites and other hotels. In Aurora, Colorado, officials closed its motel program and told needy residents to go to shelters. In Minnesota,the threat of evicting 50 homeless people from a Bloomington hotel sparked a protest after Thanksgiving. 

Affordable housing experts argue that the hotel shelter programs were merely a quick fix, and the emergency money should have instead gone toward more permanent housing solutions.  

“This was a huge missed opportunity,” said Eugene Jones Jr., CEO of Atlanta’s Housing Authority. “The problem did not simply necessitate more spending, but better and more creative spending.” 

San Francisco removes thousands of homeless from hotel rooms

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed was criticized last month after announcing the more than 2,300 homeless people staying in hotels would be transferred out in 30 days.

Funding the Shelter-in-Place hotel program for a full year costs $178 million.

“Our hotel program was always temporary,” said Breed at the time. She assured no one would end up back on the street when the program shuttered in late December. 

The announcement, however, failed to explain where or how clients would be rehoused. Housing advocates and progressive leaders on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors pushed back, calling the mayor’s promisesto find homeless people new shelter impossible because of the city's chronic affordable housing and transitional housing shortages. In response, the mayor pledged to slow down the closure of the hotels.

"People are often on the street for 20 years. Once they are in the housing pipeline it can be eight years before they find a placement; they need a Social Security number and an ID," said Brian Edwards, of the Coalition on Homelessness, a policy and advocacy organization that fights for housing justice and human rights. "Where are people going to get that in 30 days?"

San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the agency responsible for keeping stock of available units and processing requests, said it would be difficult to rehouse clients, citing reduced staff to perform intakes and closed government offices for in-person services. 

Meanwhile, health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have continued to discourage officials from housing homeless people in large shelters amid an ongoing need for social distancing. 

A vote Tuesday could delay the deadline to relocate the homeless until February. 

Tyree Leslie, 51, takes a Christmas selfie in his hotel room where he has been riding out the pandemic. Leslie, a teacher who works with students receiving special education services, has been experiencing homelessness about a year after losing his job and safety net.

For 51-year-old Tyree Leslie, a teacher who works with students receiving special education services, having a hotel room has helped him prioritize his mental health.

Leslie decorated the striped baby pink wall with a homemade sign that read "HOME" in blue and yellow block letters. 

"Most African American men don't get to focus on ourselves," said Leslie, who is experiencing homelessness for the first time in his life. "I'm using this time to put my self-care first."

Nicholas Garrett, 41, has been homeless for more than a year after a breakup and work-related neck injury. He said he slept in a tent before he moved into his publicly funded hotel room. 

"I don't know what we would do if they took hotel rooms away from us right now," he said. "So many of us have made so much progress.” 

San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston has led the charge urging the city to keep and expand the hotel program. He said the lack of public support stems from "a classist and often racist view of people who have been cast aside and marginalized in a capitalist system that has generated complete unaffordability for most people in major cities."

"Once people are in a hotel, they should never have to face going back into the street."

Some residents complain about homeless assistance programs

In Anchorage, Alaska, officials began using a mix of shelters and hotels to house the homeless when the virus first erupted. This fall, the number of COVID-19 infections linked to the Brother Francis homeless shelter elicited the arrival of epidemiologists and a CDC contact trace team

But when the Anchorage Assembly announced it would purchase three hotel buildings to house the homeless using $12.5 million of CARES Act funding, many residents pushed back, saying the new properties would drive down property values and increase crime.

Hundreds protested and some lodged complaints to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General in Washington, prompting a public hearing and several meetings between local and federal officials to determine the appropriate use of the stimulus money. 

A view of downtown Anchorage Alaska.

"To be honest, we were shocked considering we had this idea based on what other larger cities were doing," said Anchorage Assembly Chair Felix Rivera. "But we understood that the bold measure could save a lot of lives."

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness found 7,900of the city's 290,000 residents sought some form of assistance because of homelessness in 2019. Alaska Native residents make up nearly half of the city's homeless population. 

In the end, the federal government acquiesced, instructing the city of Anchorage to purchase the buildings and have the shelters up and running by the end of the year in keeping with the congressional deadline. If they couldn't move homeless people to those properties before the end of the year, federal officials said they could spend CARES funds on first-responder payroll and use the city's general funds to purchase the properties. 

Rivera said the plan is to have the housing program open by the end of the year.

New York debates what to do with homeless residents

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he will move homeless people housed in during the pandemic out of an upscale hotelin part because residents were complaining about quality-of-life problems. 

For wealthy New York residents on the Upper West Side, homeless people sitting outside the upscale Lucerne Hotel were grounds for legal action. Complaints focused on loitering, public urination and panhandling. A 15,000-person Facebook group quickly filled with messages describing the men as trash, scum and thugs. A majority of the men housed at the Lucerne are Black.

“Someone needs to send in animal control,” one Facebook user wrote.

Chimed in another: "They need to hose down the filth.”

Joshua Goldfein, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said the criticism over the hotel shelter program reflects "blatant racism."

Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor for Rudy Giuliani who is representing tenants suing over the hotel shelter program,said the hotel rooms were supposed to be only a temporary housing solution.

Officials from the NYC Department of Social Services-Department of Homeless said they are looking to transfer the men to a separate facility in the Wall Street-area that would allow the men to have increased access to health services.

The Lucerne Hotel stands at the corner of 79th street and Amsterdam avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

On the eve before Thanksgiving, the Manhattan Supreme Court ruled the men would have to vacate the hotel. Then, in a last-minute reversal in early December, the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court issued an interim stay, after various men from the Lucerne filed a motion claiming the move would "irreparably harm them" and "disrupt their mental health and substance abuse recovery programs." 

"It's testament to how well these 235 men are doing; 54 have transitioned out to permanent housing and 50 of them have jobs," said Michael Hiller, the lawyer representing the residents. "This is an opportunity to turn the corner on homelessness."

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development estimates 78,000 people are experiencing homelessness in New York City, making it the epicenter of the country's homeless population. New York City was awarded $331 million of CARES money for the state's homeless.

Shams DaBaron stands for a portrait at the African Burial National Monument in Lower Manhattan.

Shams DaBaron, 51, a hip-hop pioneer, documentarian and writer who has experienced homelessness on and off since aging out of the state's foster care system, contracted COVID-19 at a shelter before he was allowed to move into the Lucerne Hotel. He said he's come to regard the men at the Lucerne as family and the Upper West Side as home. 

"We play games upstairs, watch movies," said DaBaron who also has a frontline job with other hotel tenants picking up trash in the neighborhood.

DaBaron, who has become an advocate known as "Da Homeless Hero" in New York City, said the legal battle to remove him and others from the hotel has been traumatic. 

"They didn't want us where we came from, they don't want us here and they don't want us where we're going," DaBaron said. "This isn't about homelessness as much as it's about the inequities that exist in all fabrics of society. Something is wrong with this picture."