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Oakland Nonprofit Helping to House Those Released From Jail Amid Pandemic

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Organizers with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children offer hotel vouchers and other assistance to people released from Santa Rita Jail on April 14, 2020. (Courtesy of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children)

Oakland-based nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners with Children has long worked to secure permanent housing for the people recently released from prisons and jails — a need Executive Director Dorsey Nunn sees as particularly pressing in the Bay Area’s tight housing market.

So when Nunn and his organization learned that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office would be releasing hundreds of people from Santa Rita Jail, they knew many of those released would need a place to stay. To date, he said, they have secured 50 hotel and motel rooms for people coming out of Santa Rita using their emergency fund, fueled by community donations.

They’re working to address what they see as a gap in state and local officials’ response to the coronavirus pandemic: As many counties release hundreds of people from jail, trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many of those people are at risk of winding up on the streets.

“This thing is happening all over the country, that they're being released because (counties are) trying to depress the county jail population and the prison population,” Nunn, who was once incarcerated himself, said. “It doesn't mean that they had a damn plan of what to do after you release them.”

While Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged to provide 15,000 hotel rooms to homeless people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the state has not come close to filling those rooms. And Newsom's plan, Project Roomkey, does not explicitly address people recently released from county jails.


Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said the department has been screening all newly released people and placing those they deem at-risk into hotel rooms, part of several countywide operations to quarantine the most vulnerable members of the homeless population.

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So far, the county has housed about 170 homeless people overall, Kelly said, including some released from Santa Rita Jail. But he added that the initiatives faced staffing shortages. Plus, these efforts don’t apply to people who are under 65 with healthy immune systems who have not tested positive for COVID-19.

The Sheriff’s Office has reduced the jail population by over 700 since March 1, trimming the number of people held by more than 25%.

So far this week, Nunn said, his organization has housed 20 people released from Santa Rita Jail in hotel rooms and spent about $35,500. He estimates they’ve raised enough money to house 50 people for two weeks.

Nunn’s team members, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, have stood outside of Santa Rita, waiting to give gift cards and hotel vouchers to people released from the jail.

Nunn plans on continuing this emergency work for as long as he has the funds — and said he hopes that the issues raised by the pandemic will resonate after the worst of the virus is over.

“For many of us who have been fighting this fight for [the] long term, this is an I told you so moment,” he said. “Cuz we’ve been saying for years, y’all have not actually planned for people returning.”

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