How the Shelter in Place Program Saved Our Lives

hope after homelessness

The Shelter in Place (SIP) hotel system saved my life and gave my son a chance at a future.

Our first step toward a viable future was getting inside after more than five years unhoused. We had come down to San Francisco after the pandemic had shut all the campgrounds, public bathrooms, and public access showers. An organization that assists homeless families in San Francisco helped place us in a hotel that a charity was running within the SIP system.

Hotels have generally been a place of shelter to me, rather than vacation accommodation. Sometimes, when we were on the road, getting out of a snowstorm or a heatwave became a matter of life and death. We would scrape together the cash and find a cheap motel for the night. There, we would fall into hot showers and warm, clean beds, turning on the television and resting for a while. It was a rare luxury that always left us wishing to stay a little longer and recover from living outside.

When we walked up to the SIP Hotel for the first time, I was very nervous. I had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me.

It soon became apparent that people wanted to help. I expected it to feel like being in storage or jail. Instead, people who cared greeted us. They helped us get into housing and wanted to make sure we were clean, safe, and fed.

I hadn’t had regular access to a shower or a private bathroom in years. My son could barely remember living inside.

There were two clean beds in the room, a private bathroom, and a door that locked. We didn’t have to worry about electricity, how to charge our phones, or whether we would be safe that night. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have to worry about being woken up, moved on, or attacked.

The hotel had 24-hour security. The program provided food three times a day. Finally, I felt like I might be able to recover. I stepped into the shower that first night and let the hot water run over my head. I was so grateful I cried. In 24 hours, I must have had five showers. I was so happy to be clean.

Getting clean safely and in private with hot running water is a luxury I will never take for granted again. For years showers had to be taken in campgrounds. These public shower blocks are often unheated, dirty, and unsafe.

The hotel system saved my son and me. My health began deteriorating rapidly after spending so long unsheltered. I had wounds on my feet that would not heal. After a week in the hotel, they finally started to heal.

I managed to sleep and was able to control my celiac disease. I went from eating a few times a week to eating three times a day, every day. My son was able to go to school and is now completely caught up with his peers and is doing well. We both managed to recover enough energy to do more than simply survive.

My fellow residents were able to access support to deal with their various issues for the first time. I watched people overcome addiction, work out their mental health issues and get medical assistance. Gradually people managed to access financial support and become employed. The staff worked tirelessly to fix broken lives. When families moved out and into housing, the joy in the air was palpable.

When the SIP hotels closed in the latter part of 2021, it also shut down the opportunity for other unhoused people to recover, rest and rebuild their lives. The residents still housed in the hotels lost their safety, their chance to rebuild their lives, and the opportunity to keep their families together.

I often wonder what happened to the hotel residents that were still there when it closed.

I wonder how many ended up back on the streets? How many fell back into addiction, or lost custody of their children? How many of those children also ended up back on the streets with their parents, losing their ability to flourish and forge a future?

I didn’t think it was possible to rebuild my life. I was too tired, hopeless, and downtrodden to consider it a possibility. After about a month, I had the energy to start to believe it might be possible. With some clean clothes, a shower, safe sleep, and my child in school, I started to hold my head up.

I set up a blog and started to write again. I felt like a human being instead of disposable trash. Consequently, I started to behave more humanely in response. I started to believe my son had a chance to make a life for himself. I watched him unfurl, start to relax, to feel safer. He started to take pride in his appearance and care about his education. He stopped wheezing and coughing all the time. His eczema cleared up. We both started to look and feel much healthier.

The safety and security of being inside saved our lives. The dignity of having a private room in which to live, not just survive, gave me the ability to work on getting into an apartment. Congregate shelters do not have the same effect of making people feel safe and valued. It is impossible to fix a life in public, being observed and sleeping on a mat.

I needed just a little bit of luxury to start to heal. By that, I mean things that the rest of the world takes for granted: a bed, electricity, privacy, a private toilet and shower, and a door that locks.

I was in the SIP hotel with my son for ten months and eased into the transition toward a viable life by people who cared and had that expertise. I just wish that the system was still running and that others had access to the same program that saved my life.

Detroit Richards

Detroit Richards


Detroit Richards was unhoused between 2015 and 2020, and after ten months in a SIP hotel, was awarded a housing subsidy for a year. She currently lives with her son in San Francisco, and writes for Street Sheet and at her blog

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