Alan Tolbert and his dog, Coco, inside their room at Hotel Whitcomb. (Courtesy Alan Tolbert)
When Alan Tolbert first walked into San Francisco’s Hotel Whitcomb in April, he couldn’t help but smile. For the first time in two years, he had a room to call his own.
“It’s just great being here,” said Tolbert, who shares his room with his pitbull terrier, Coco. “I love it.”
Tolbert is one of more than 10,000 homeless seniors and people with medical conditions who were able to move into hotel rooms in California through a state-led effort to isolate and quarantine people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the program, dubbed Project Roomkey, in April as a temporary solution to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 among people living in emergency shelters and outdoor tent communities. As of Friday, the state had filled 10,644 hotel rooms, and leased a total of 15,837.
Now, Newsom says he wants to turn that temporary solution into a permanent one by helping counties buy hotels and motels across the state. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness say it’s a rare opportunity to put a meaningful dent in the state’s housing shortage by providing housing for around 10% of the state’s more than 150,000 homeless residents.
It’s also a unique chance to avoid some of the complex funding and permitting schemes that often stymie such projects, said Amanda Wehrman, deputy director of HomeBase, a public policy nonprofit focused on addressing homelessness. That’s not to say the project hasn’t been without neighborhood opposition in a few cities.
“Right now is a moment where we can take some meaningful steps to address the needs around homelessness,” Wehrman said. “The next thing that needs to happen is to make sure we can address our public health crisis and address homelessness through these opportunities.”
In the Bay Area’s nine counties, officials have leased a total of 5,169 rooms, with individuals and families living in 3,339 of them, according to the state’s Department of Social Services. And so far, FEMA has agreed to provide a 75% reimbursement to counties for the rooms through June 30, unless the federal agency agrees to an extension.
Newsom’s May budget proposal included $600 million in federal funds from the CARES Act to help counties purchase the hotels — but it’s unclear where the money will come from to operate the hotels and provide services for the people who live there after FEMA's subsidies end.
Devil in the Details
Contra Costa County spends roughly $2.5 million a month to house 550 people in five hotels. That includes the cost of the rooms, plus food, staffing and supportive services, said Jaime Jenett, a spokesperson for the county office of Health, Housing and Homeless Services. The leases will end in August unless extended, she said.
“There’s the initial outlay of purchasing a hotel, and then there is the ongoing costs of actually running programs,” Jenett said. “And a lot of what the future looks like depends on funding.”
Kerry Abbott, director of Alameda County’s Office of Homeless Care and Coordination, says it’s likely costs will fall when the facilities become permanent and social distancing protocols are lifted.
Alameda County estimates the cost of providing housing with supportive services to formerly homeless people on an ongoing basis to about $60 per night, per household, compared to $100 during the pandemic.
That's because there are higher transportation, medical and cleaning costs associated with providing housing during a public health emergency, she said.
For hotel guests who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results, Abbott said, transportation is “much more expensive because we can only move one or two people at a time to allow for distancing.”
But whether Alameda County purchases the actual hotels where guests are staying right now remains to be seen. Not all of the hotels have a suitable layout for long-term use, Abbott said, especially for an older population with mobility impairments.
And others are "further along in their lifetime and need significant rehabilitation," she said.
That’s true of several of the hotels being leased throughout the Bay Area. At the Hotel Whitcomb, Alan Tolbert said it can take several hours for shower water to drain due to a persistent clog.
“It’s unsanitary,” he said. “I’ve been asking staff for weeks to solve this problem.”
The difficulty in retrofitting hotels for long-term use is why officials in Alameda County are eyeing other sites for permanent housing. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors earlier this month approved a $23.3 million purchase of three buildings, including two near Oakland's Lake Merritt.
But at the same time, Abbott said Alameda County is working with the state to rapidly place at least 400 families and individuals staying at the hotels into existing subsidized, affordable apartments.
“[We’re] trying to really get people into housing now, because obviously that’s an even better situation than Project Roomkey,” she said, “but also to keep the non-congregate hotel shelters available as long as COVID continues to be so prevalent in the community.”
No Going Back
Anita de Asis Miralle, the founder and director of The Village, a community-based homeless services provider in Oakland, said her organization has a similar exit strategy. The Village has housed about 40 families and individuals in hotel rooms as an alternative to the county and the state-led Project Roomkey. It’s been able to pay for the rooms with nearly $100,000 in philanthropic donations.
Her group is working on finding places to move people as they exit hotel rooms, anything from apartments or rooms to rent, tiny homes or working RVs. But, she says, finding those affordable options has been a real challenge.
“What is very clear to us is that having people in a stable environment for any amount of time and then releasing them back into the streets is going to cause so much trauma and mental hardship,” de Asis Miralle said. “We’re not going to allow that to happen to our folks.”
For Alan Tolbert, the opportunity to have a room in a San Francisco hotel has been transformative. The 48-year-old has congestive heart failure but saw his health improve soon after moving in, he said.
“It’s a big difference,” Tolbert said. “The feeling of privacy, I can sleep better. My stress levels are down. It’s really calmed me.”
Tolbert said there were times he would feel shortness of breath just walking through the city, because of his medical condition and the chaos of living in a shelter.
“I feel better now, healthier,” he said.
With the future of his hotel room still unknown, Tolbert said he can’t imagine going back to a congregate shelter now, with the threat of the coronavirus still looming.
“They’re not going to put us on the street,” he said. “That defeats the purpose.”
Tolbert wondered, “They’re going to have to do something, right?”