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Thousands of Homeless People Were Placed in Hotels Due to COVID-19. Now, Many Are Homeless Again

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Celestina Pearl, from St. James Infirmary, speaks at a protest in San Francisco's Mission District on Nov. 16 calling for shelter-in-place hotel rooms to remain available for at-risk unhoused residents. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After three years of bouncing between shelters, relatives’ couches, a tent and other places, Gillette Christa and her 16-month-old dog, Shepherd, had finally gotten into stable housing.

“It was like taking a load off,” she said. “We were able to finally rest.”

But now her future is uncertain as she waits to hear where she will go next.

Like some 22,300 people across California, Christa was placed in a hotel in San Francisco as part of a program called Project Roomkey – an effort to temporarily house seniors, and people who were medically vulnerable, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the program in April, the focus was on providing places for people experiencing homelessness to safely shelter in place during the pandemic. But, he also said it would be a jumping-off point for permanent housing.

“We’re not just thinking short-term,” he said during an April 3 press conference outside a motel in Sacramento. “We’re also beginning to process an orientation of focus and energy around long-term supports, so that we can get people off the streets in a permanent way.”


But data from seven Bay Area counties, which was analyzed by KQED, show that nearly 16% of the people who have already been discharged from the hotels have made it into permanent housing, or 345 people out of 2,196.

The remaining 84% have gone on to emergency shelters, transitional housing, friends or family, other hotels paid for with private funds, drug rehab facilities, jail, or to tents, cars and encampments. At least 15 people have died.

The data includes only people experiencing homelessness who stayed in hotels as part of a preventative measure to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It does not include hotel rooms set aside to isolate and quarantine people who had been exposed to the virus and whose stays were limited to 14 days.

This data does not include Solano County or San Francisco, which has placed more than 3,300 people in hotel rooms or trailers since the start of the pandemic. Officials in San Francisco said they couldn’t provide data on where people went after they left the hotels.

But in a Nov. 2 letter to county supervisors, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said 49 households had been placed in permanent housing from the city's shelter-in-place hotels, which she believes is an undercount.

Counties across the state are beginning to close down some of those hotels. And advocates say the timing couldn’t be worse as temperatures drop, coronavirus infection rates surge and many congregate shelters remain closed or at reduced capacity.

On Monday, Newsom announced another $62 million in grants for counties to help them transition more people into permanent housing, including $35 million to pay for rental subsidies, case management, help finding housing, and landlord incentives, among other things.

The state has also doled out more than $800 million in grants for some of the hotels to be converted into permanent housing through a separate program, called Project Homekey. Newsom launched the program in June as a way to transition more people out of the temporary hotels.

So far, the state has awarded $305.3 million to the Bay Area’s nine counties for 21 projects. The projects will add more than 1,600 units of housing for formerly homeless people, according to an analysis of the awards by KQED.

But it’s still a small fraction of the need. More than 8,500 people have gotten temporary housing in Project Roomkey hotels in the Bay Area to date. Heather Freinkel, a managing attorney for the Homeless Action Center, said there’s just not enough housing to go around.

“No matter how you look at it, the big picture is the big picture,” Freinkel said, adding that the Bay Area was facing a shortage of affordable housing before the pandemic. “There is not enough permanent housing.”

Despite the low percentage of people who’ve made it into housing so far, Freinkel still thinks Project Roomkey has been a success. Placing any number of people who have been homeless into permanent housing should be lauded, she said.

“The point [of Project Roomkey] is an emergency intervention to prevent the most vulnerable people from being exposed to COVID-19,” she said. “Considering all the barriers and the lack of available housing, it’s a great accomplishment that even some people were able to obtain permanent housing.”

Hotels Closing

San Francisco had planned to close seven its Project Roomkey hotels  by Dec. 21, though a city spokesperson said the new state funding would provide more flexibility to keep them open longer if needed. Officials have not given a timeline for how long those hotels might stay open, and have said they plan to move forward with moving people out of the hotels. Those hotels currently have about 500 people staying in them.

The city plans to phase out its remaining 22 hotels by June.

San Francisco supervisors on Thursday urged officials to keep all the hotels open for as long as possible and said they planned to introduce legislation to mandate that everyone in the hotels gets placed into permanent housing. The press conference followed a small demonstration earlier this week, when dozens of homeless advocates took to the streets to protest the hotel closures.

Sylvia Viviana, an organizer with Hotels not Hospitals, speaks at a protest in the Mission District in San Francisco on Nov, 16, calling for shelter-in-place hotel rooms to remain available for unhoused residents. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"The weather is getting colder, COVID cases are surging, and we need to get this right," Supervisor Matt Haney said Thursday. "The hotels are a critical tool to keep people off the streets."

But Stewart-Kahn told KQED the hotel program is not sustainable. Rooms cost roughly $260 per night, she said, compared to between $70 to $90 for other types of housing. The hotel rooms come with three meals a day, laundry service, wellness checks, security guards and case management.

“These are extremely expensive compared to other solutions,” Stewart-Kahn said in an interview. “They were always intended to be temporary.”

Stewart-Kahn said the city is committed to making sure everyone in the hotels would be transferred to “short, medium or long-term” placements when they leave and that she believes there is adequate capacity available.

“We can try to wait until there is perfection, but we are never going to get there,” she said. “This is an opportunity to end homelessness for more people in San Francisco than anyone in our field has ever gotten the opportunity to do.”

A demonstrator holds a sign in the Mission in San Francisco on Nov, 16, 2020, calling for shelter-in-place hotel rooms to remain available for unhoused residents. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Following the governor's announcement of more funding this week, Deborah Bouck, a spokesperson for San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said it wasn't clear yet how much additional funding the city would get, or when.

"We look forward to incorporating these resources along with early learnings from the (rehousing) process to inform San Francisco's rehousing plan," she said.

Christa said she expects to find out in the next week whether she will get a permanent home or temporary housing. She fractured her ankle in three places in August, she said, and it’s still healing.

“There’s the fear that there may not be a match,” Christa said. “And my ankle won’t be close to well.”

But, she said, she's already met with a housing coordinator who is working to get her a permanent home.

"I'm hopeful, but I'm not counting chickens," Christa said. "I'm waiting for them to hatch."

Different Counties, Different Approaches

While some counties are winding down their programs, others are keeping their hotels open. Officials in San Francisco, Alameda and Marin counties have all said they’re closing some hotels because they’re concerned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would stop reimbursing them.

FEMA pays for 75% of the cost of running the hotels as part of the emergency response to the coronavirus. California counties have been relying on additional federal funding from the CARES Act, which is set to expire at the end of the year, as well as other state grants or local funding to make up the remaining 25%.

Robert Barker, a spokesman for FEMA, said the federal agency would continue providing reimbursement on a month-to-month basis for the emergency shelters as long as there is need.

Sonoma and Contra Costa counties, which collectively have nine Project Roomkey sites, have both said they will keep those sites open indefinitely.

“As long as we have the resources and capability, we want to keep the hotels,” said Michael Gause, Sonoma County’s Ending Homelessness program manager.

In Alameda County, 1,121 people are currently sheltering at nine hotels. But county officials say they plan to wind down six of them between December and February.

“We’re really looking to try to take advantage to make sure everyone can exit the hotels into housing,” said Kerry Abbott, director of Alameda County’s Office of Homeless Care and Coordination. “But that’s obviously a pretty huge feat.”

The county plans to keep one hotel open through June for people who test positive for COVID-19 and need a place to safely quarantine. Unlike the other Project Roomkey hotels, which allow guests to stay as long as they need until they get placed into permanent housing, the quarantine facilities only allow guests to stay until they are no longer at risk of spreading the virus.

It also plans to convert two hotels into permanent housing, using the state’s Project Homekey funding. And, it’s working to recruit landlords to place people out of the hotels into private-market units paid for with rent subsidies, Abbott said. So far, they’ve signed up about three dozen.

“Getting those landlords to give us a call and identifying vacant units in the community is absolutely a priority right now,” Abbott said.

In Marin County, all but seven people have transitioned out of its four Project Roomkey hotels. County officials said that 35 people have moved into permanent housing.

The county opened a new shelter in San Rafael for people transitioning out of one of the hotels, said Ellen Hammerle, the vice president of client services for Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that managed two of the hotels in Marin County.

Related Coverage

Homeward Bound will manage the Kerner Boulevard location as a temporary shelter for 45 people through April, 2022, which will allow social service providers more time to find permanent housing for them, Hammerle said.

She credited the successful placements on a high level of coordination between the community organizations involved, county officials and the organizations managing the hotels.

“All of us know the clients individually by name and really care about making sure they get housed and stay safe and get the care, or employment or whatever it is they’re working on,” Hammerle said.

But she said it’s also been difficult to find placements for people who need mental health services or who have other special needs. That’s a barrier that officials in Sonoma and Solano counties said they faced, as well.

“We don’t have mental health clinicians on site [at the hotels]," said Dawn La Bar, chairwoman of Community Action Partnership for the Solano Joint Powers Authority. “I don’t think we realized the extent of that need.”

A Place to Grow

For those who have moved from Project Roomkey to more permanent housing, the program has been a lifeline.

Jessica Ellis and her 8-year-old son, King, lost their apartment in June. They were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the landlord raised their rent, she said. The apartment had bug infestations, the air conditioning stopped working for seven days during a heat spell, and the heat had stopped working during the previous winter.

Jessica Ellis and her son King pose for a portrait on the back stairs of their apartment building on Nov. 15, 2020. (Photo by Beth LaBerge/KQED) (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Rather than fight the landlord over the rent increase, Ellis decided to leave. She wanted a fresh start.

“I just didn’t feel like trying to get water out of a rock,” she said. “That’s why we had to go.”

Her son is autistic, and she heard about programs in the Bay Area that might help him. So, they put all their belongings in storage and packed up their car and hit the road.

“When I saw the ‘Welcome to California’ sign,” Ellis said, “I started crying. It was such a relief.”

King was enrolled at a summer camp in San Francisco for the first week after they arrived. But soon, the money they budgeted for a hotel ran out. Ellis relied on friends to pitch in money for an Airbnb for a couple nights, but they also found themselves sleeping in their car, too.

After 10 days without knowing where she would be able to find a place to live, Ellis got in touch with an intake worker at Catholic Charities who placed her and King at one of the Project Roomkey hotels.

“It was like, ‘Praise God,’” Ellis said. “For a single mom to know there were three meals a day I could come get, that was wonderful.”

King takes his mom's temperature
Jessica Ellis has her temperature checked by her son King at their home in San Francisco. They regularly take their temperatures to monitor for COVID-19. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ellis and her son got keys to their new apartment in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood in September, which she pays for with a Section 8 subsidy.

“We are in a little diamond in the rough,” she said. “It doesn’t have much of the things on my list ... no garden, no bathtub, no parking spot ... But, it’s secure.”

After moving every year for the past seven years, Ellis said they finally have a place where they know they can stay for good.

“It’s a place where hopefully, King can be longer than a year,” she said, “and grow into this wonderful little boy he’s growing into.”

UPDATE: This story includes updated statistics from Alameda County. 

Staff writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this story. 


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