Hotel Owners See Benefits, Drawbacks in Housing Homeless

By Ilene Eng
Ilene Eng
Ilene Eng
Ilene is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area covering Northern California news.
July 13, 2020Updated: July 13, 2020

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that he’ll extend the state-run Project Roomkey that has brought homeless people into hotels amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and invest $1.3 billion into permanently housing the homeless.

Hotel owners in San Francisco say the benefits of the program—with its new name Project Homekey—include a steady income from the state, at a time when hotel rooms would otherwise remain vacant, while the downfalls include syringes in the hallways, overdoses on the premises, and concerns about the homeless taking on the legal status of “tenants,” they told The Epoch Times.

The Cable Car Hotel in San Francisco currently has about 40 homeless guests.

“If I didn’t take the homeless, my place would be closed, closed, closed,” owner Jean Claude Lair said. “And I would be on the sidewalk. So I’m very, very lucky [to take] the homeless people.”


When tourists book rooms at his hotel, he often pays a 15 percent commission fee to Not so with the homeless, who are referred to his hotel through the city’s Department of Public Health or Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

He doesn’t need as many employees, since the homeless guests are expected to clean their own rooms.

With tourist guests, Lair said, “If you have a fingerprint on the window, they will say, ‘Oh, it’s dirty.’” But “homeless people are not like this.”

He says he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up the showroom-like cleanliness or having staff clean rooms and make beds daily. If the homeless guests don’t clean up their rooms, Lair said, he can report them to their social workers and they may then be placed at the bottom of the list for housing.

They have left needles lying around, he said, but they are told to clean them up themselves.

Each homeless person has a social worker assigned to him or her. But, if any issues occur on the weekends, he must resolve them himself, since the social workers don’t work weekends.

Lair has two employees to keep the public restrooms clean, one on the day shift and one at night, plus a handyman on site. Otherwise, he doesn’t need a lot of people that might tend to guests’ needs.

The homeless know the city and don’t need assistance about places to go and what to do. The city gives them money to take taxis to the hospital or other destinations, and provides their meals.

“See, [this is] why I’m happy,” Lair said.

A couple of blocks from Lair’s hotel is The Monarch Hotel, the owner of which had concerns about Project Roomkey and chose not to participate.


The hotel’s general manager, Francis, who preferred not to publish his full name, said he feels sorry for the homeless, but he thinks there should be a better program to help them.

“They don’t have anybody trying to help these people,” he told The Epoch Times. The homeless get to stay in a hotel, but no one is providing them with the support they need, he said, “so that at the end of this pandemic, they can go back to society … [and] find jobs.”

Project Roomkey reached out to The Monarch in April, but the owner didn’t like the plan after the hotel’s lawyer reviewed the related documents.

In California, a hotel guest becomes a tenant after 30 consecutive days and has the right to a formal eviction proceeding. The owner worried that once the homeless became tenants, he would be fined for making them leave.

“Also, the damages in the room and all that, that’s one big question after they check out,” Francis said. He says he’s heard from staff at hotels in Project Roomkey that the homeless go out during the day and return drunk or on drugs. They reportedly find needles in the hallways, people overdosed, and even corpses.

Concerns for hotels include the effects on insurance and on the reputation of the business.

“There are five-star hotels here … well-known hotels, several of them … you pass by, you walk by, you’ll see the homeless in and out,” he said.

Lair indicated that wasn’t a problem and believes that people wouldn’t mind staying in a hotel after the homeless had been there.

“This is the City of San Francisco, it’s the way it is, man,” he said.

The Projects

Project Roomkey was introduced in April to get the homeless off the streets, where they would be more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. The program’s cost was $150 million, and it secured about 15,000 rooms and 1,305 trailers across the state.

Epoch Times Photo
Stuart Malcolm, a doctor with the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, speaks with homeless people about COVID-19 in San Francisco, on March 17, 2020. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view shows squares painted on the ground to encourage homeless people to keep to social distancing at a city-sanctioned homeless encampment across from City Hall in San Francisco, on May 22, 2020. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

San Francisco currently has 25 hotels with lease agreements under Project Roomkey, the office of Mayor London Breed told The Epoch Times via email. The city declined to release the names of the hotels for privacy reasons, the mayor’s office said.

While The Epoch Times contacted more than 30 hotels in the city, only the Cable Car Hotel was willing to comment about participating in Project Homekey.

According to the mayor’s office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide “local governments up to 75 percent federal cost-share reimbursement for hotel accommodations, meals, security, and custodial services for people experiencing homelessness.”

On June 30, Newsom announced a new investment from the state budget of $1.3 billion for Project Homekey, the next phase of Project Roomkey. The funds will be used to buy hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, tiny homes, and other facilities for the homeless. It will also establish long-term social services for the tenants.

The new phase of the program will be “the largest expansion of housing for people experiencing homelessness in recent history, while addressing the continuing health and social service needs of this vulnerable population,” the governor’s office said in a statement.