Thousands of homeless people staying in California hotels could soon return to the streets — just as the state enters a potentially devastating third wave of the pandemic.
Local officials say they must shut many of the hotels that have accommodated more than 23,000 people during the pandemic. Counties are hesitant to rely on uncertain federal funding, while Gov. Gavin Newsom and local leaders are focusing on permanent hotel conversions that can keep residents off the streets for good.
Some participants in the program, known as Project Roomkey, will move into permanent housing or short-term facilities. But many could find themselves searching for a roof just as they would during a normal winter.
“It’s the worst time to do this,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “These are obviously extraordinary times, and it’s starting to get cold, it’s starting to rain a little bit, then you’ve got a pandemic raging out of control combined with flu season. And then you’re really going to turn people out into that environment? It’s just inhumane.”
Tomoquia Moss, who runs Bay Area-based All Home, predicts that 10 to 20 percent of Roomkey residents statewide will exit the program without anywhere to go, leaving up to 5,000 people unsheltered statewide.
Before the pandemic, California had some 151,000 homeless residents, according to a point-in-time count in January 2019. That number is believed to have increased significantly due to Covid-19 job losses and correctional facilities releasing inmates early to reduce overcrowding.
Hundreds of new encampments this year have cropped up in Los Angeles, Sacramento and other cities. Advocates across the state worry that an already-dire situation will only worsen come February, when California’s eviction moratorium is slated to end.
Homeless advocates have lauded the state for moving quickly to bring thousands inside through Project Roomkey, which targeted people especially vulnerable to Covid-19 and relied heavily on federal stimulus aid. Leaders were concerned that infections could run rampant through homeless communities.
But advocates say it’s the wrong time to wind down the emergency program. By mid-November, the number of participating hotels was down nearly 30 percent from the August peak, according to the Department of Social Services.
The state is following Roomkey with Project Homekey, providing cities and counties $835 million — also mostly in federal dollars — to acquire and rehabilitate 6,055 hotel and motel units for interim and permanent housing.
While Roomkey residents get priority at some Homekey sites, the permanent program lacks funding to serve all of the people who benefited from its emergency predecessor. Purchasing every Roomkey hotel would’ve cost more than double Homekey’s budget, based on per-unit costs, and it will take longer than this winter to convert many of those properties.
Meanwhile, local governments say they can no longer commit to Roomkey as federal stimulus funds expire with no guarantee of an extension.
“We’re all setting a goal of losing zero people out of Roomkey back to the streets,” said Jason Elliott, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior adviser on homelessness. “There are people who are going to fall back into homelessness. But we’re going to get as close as we can.”
The state is working with individual counties to identify stable options, which could include permanent supportive housing like Homekey, apartments with a Housing Choice Vouchers, non-congregate shelter settings and long-term care facilities, according to the Department of Social Services.
State officials are surveying counties for Roomkey exit data, but aggregate numbers are not yet available. A Desert Sun analysis, reflecting 36 participating counties as of mid-October, found that 16 percent of those served since April have returned to homelessness.
According to the Department of Social Services, most people who’ve left the program thus far participated only for 14-day isolation or quarantine purposes. The nearly 11,000 people that remain in Roomkey hotels are from at-risk populations and require longer term stays.
In Los Angeles — home to more than 65,000 homeless Californians — the homeless services agency reports that at least 20 percent of those who left Roomkey through September returned to places “not meant for habitation.” In Marin County, that number is 27 percent. Over a third of hotel clients have returned to the street in Fresno County, which set up its own triage housing similar to Roomkey but without the case managers that have helped people transition to housing in other locations.
Just a small portion of Roomkey clients have moved into permanent housing, including 7 percent of those discharged in Sacramento and, according to the Desert Sun, 5 percent statewide. Homekey has created more than double the number of permanent housing units California adds in a typical year — but it fell far short of filling the state’s growing need.
California’s overall strategy rests on grants to cities and counties, and the state has poured billions into increasing its affordable housing stock — but much of that money has gone unspent. New Homekey units will undoubtedly help — but officials acknowledge that they’re not nearly enough. And some approved projects ended before they began: Marin County voted against accepting one of three Homekey awards, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, and a Sacramento project, according to the Sacramento Bee, died amid appraisal disagreements and litigation.
San Francisco originally planned to empty its first wave of seven properties, which house 500 people, by Dec. 21 and fully end the program by June. That timeline could now be extended — although it’s unclear by how much — thanks to an infusion of emergency funds from the state, according to the homeless services department.
“The aim to rehouse 2,400 people in eight months is just short of implausible and incredulous,” said Joe Wilson, a San Francisco shelter director and homeless advocate, after city officials presented their closure plans this month. “Until we identify more permanent solutions, it is incredulous and lunacy at best to proceed down a path that we know going in is not going to be successful.”
Like San Francisco, Los Angeles is phasing out temporary housing, but on a tighter timeline that will eliminate at least 400 beds each month until the program ends in March. Sacramento County shut down one site in September due to funding and neighborhood concerns and plans to keep three others open through early 2021. Marin and Orange counties wrapped up their Roomkey efforts in October.
As for where Roomkey residents will go, public health officials have strongly recommended against congregate shelters, which can be breeding grounds for the virus. But faced with few alternatives, counties including Los Angeles, Marin and Contra Costa are turning to traditional shelters with pandemic precautions as part of their transition plans.
Local leaders say they can’t commit to keeping the Roomkey properties open because they aren’t sure if federal reimbursements — which have footed 75 percent of the Roomkey bill on a month-by-month basis — will continue into next year. Because rehousing people takes time, many counties are shutting down hotels before the funding actually expires. Still, others like Contra Costa, Sonoma and Imperial plan to seek FEMA reimbursement as long as it is available.
State officials say they’re confident FEMA funds will continue for the duration of the pandemic. They’ve also granted cities and counties another $62 million based on Roomkey occupancy rates to continue hotel leases and develop and implement transition plans as sites shut down.
Like Newsom, counties want to turn their attention and resources to more permanent solutions. Spending indefinitely on temporary shelters, said Fresno County social services program manager Laura Moreno, is an inefficient use of resources if officials don’t have an exit plan.
“Could we go longer with the shelters? Sure,” Moreno said. “But it doesn’t do us any good … because we will not have helped [people] achieve permanency.”
Advocates and local leaders say it’s past time for the state to devote more permanent funding to its homelessness crisis, which Newsom made his top priority in February as he introduced California’s third new homeless program in three years. The state will reexamine the issue in the upcoming budget, according to the governor’s office, and will look to the federal government for more support.
A Democratic administration is cause for optimism, but Congress remains deadlocked over a third coronavirus relief package. Among the major sticking points is support for state and local governments.
“Homekey is a huge first step, but there’s just going to be a huge amount of need in the very near future,” said Chris Martin, policy director for Housing California, a coalition of advocates for homeless residents and builders. “And the state’s really going to have to think that through as we look into next year.”