San Francisco may be required to pay $19.5 million in compensation for property damage resulting from housing homeless individuals in privately owned hotels during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit, filed by the historic Hotel Whitcomb, is expected to be resolved by this settlement. Around 400 homeless individuals were accommodated in the hotel as part of “Project Roomkey,” a program launched by the California Department of Social Services to assist the state’s homeless population.
The owners of Hotel Whitcomb claimed that the homeless residents caused approximately $20 million in damages, averaging about $48,750 per individual. According to KQED, about 3,300 homeless people were housed in private hotel rooms, and the city estimated property damage claims totaling around $26 million, averaging approximately $8,000 per person, as per a city budget report.
However, the existing claims already exceeded this estimate slightly. Other hotels, including the Tilden Hotel and the Hotel Union Square, filed claims against the city and received $2.9 million and $5.3 million, respectively.
With the addition of the Hotel Whitcomb claim, the total amount reaches $27.7 million. There is still a possibility that other properties may file similar claims. In an email, a spokesperson from the city attorney’s office stated that the Whitcomb claim was the last shelter-in-place hotel claim for damages known to the city.
Nonetheless, the city has submitted a reimbursement claim of $386 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The coverage of property damage claims by FEMA is yet to be determined, raising the possibility that taxpayers in the United States may bear the financial burden of decisions made by state and local authorities in California.
Notably, many homeless individuals housed through Project Roomkey struggled with substance abuse issues, and at least 18 overdoses were reported at Hotel Whitcomb during the initiative. While the project assisted some individuals, it faced significant criticism as the pandemic neared its end. It transformed from a program designed to protect vulnerable people from death into a program where cities throughout the state relocated homeless individuals after dismantling encampments.
According to testimonies, some homeless individuals expressed dissatisfaction with Project Roomkey. They felt the accommodations were substandard and experienced difficulties finding employment due to inconvenient locations and strict curfews. However, California views Project Roomkey as a success. As stated on the California Department of Social Services website, it has expanded its efforts by acquiring additional facilities, such as hotels, motels, and apartments, to provide long-term housing solutions for the homeless population.
The Home Key grant program, administered by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), has been instrumental in the state’s efforts to address homelessness. The program builds upon the achievements of Project Roomkey and the Rehousing Strategy by allowing agencies to acquire properties to provide stable housing for homeless or at-risk individuals.
While the opinions of the homeless population involved in Project Roomkey vary, the experiences shared by some individuals highlight challenges and limitations within the program.
As California continues its efforts to combat homelessness, acquiring additional properties through the Home Key grant program reflects a commitment to providing long-term housing solutions. The question is how much taxpayers will be paying and whether it is effective if it only helps a few individuals long term.