Homeless people in Seattle are now getting their COVID-19 vaccination shots, yet the city is expanding its use of a federal program that pays to house homeless individuals in hotels. Two additional hotels in downtown Seattle are currently being filled with people who had been staying in group shelters. The cost is $12 million, but Seattle officials are increasingly confident that federal taxpayers will pick up the tab.
Homeless advocates say it’s a good investment. “The whole community has a benefit to contain the virus by keeping the people who are experiencing homelessness safe and healthy,” said Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
FEMA has been reimbursing cities for most of the cost of housing homeless in hotel rooms since the pandemic began. Under President Trump, the reimbursement rate was 75% and hotel stays were capped at 30 days, although cities have received extensions. President Biden increased the FEMA reimbursement to 100% and guaranteed the money through September 30th. To be eligible for reimbursement, FEMA states homeless individuals must be at least 65 years old and have underlying health conditions. But Yentel and other homeless advocates say that rule has not been uniformly enforced with some cities getting reimbursed for all the hotel rooms occupied.
San Francisco has been the most aggressive user of the homeless hotels. It currently operates 24 hotels housing 2,114 individuals who had been in either homeless camps or congregate shelters. It’s costing the city $19.7 million per month and officials have so far sought FEMA reimbursement of $65.9 million. FEMA has been slow to reimburse having sent San Francisco just $5.1 million.
Despite the increased amount of money spent on homeless hotels, the number of people living on the streets in San Francisco and Seattle is going up. According to HUD in the year before the pandemic, homelessness jumped 6.2% in Seattle, among the highest in the country. Several city parks are lined with tents. Some people are even camped on city ball fields and on school grounds.
A government watchdog group says cities like Seattle and San Francisco have created their homeless crises and now taxpayers are being asked to fix them.
“The problem existed long before Covid ravaged the country,” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, “the federal government should not be giving money to cities to address problems they have had for many, many years.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., agrees. “We’re not really being straightforward with the American taxpayer when we’re responding to the pandemic and many other things that have nothing to do with Covid 19,” Newhouse said.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act gives cities $5 billion to address homelessness. Many homeless advocates are hoping that money is used to buy the hotels currently being leased so they can be permanent homeless shelters.