By Matt Levin
Amid an alarming spike in the spread of coronavirus in shelters and criticism that hotel rooms are sitting empty, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that nearly 900 homeless Californians have been placed into hotels and motels under a first-in-the-nation federal partnership to provide shelter during the coronavirus outbreak.
So far, Newsom says the state has leased 6,867 hotel and motel rooms under an initiative called Project Roomkey. With the Federal Emergency Management Agency footing 75 percent of the bill, the state hopes to fill the rooms as rapidly as possible as shelters from San Francisco to Fresno report residents who have tested positive for the virus. One homeless individual has already died in Santa Clara due to COVID-19.
Though the project ultimately aims to secure 15,000 rooms, it comes weeks after the governor issued a statewide shelter-in-place order and will help just a fraction of California’s massive homeless population.
“This is the crisis that predated the most current crisis in the state of California,” Newsom said. “We’re doing everything in our power to meet it head on.”
Friday’s announcement was the state’s first major update since the push to repurpose vacant hotels was announced more than two weeks ago. Homeless advocates say it’s a race against time with so little tracking on how the virus is spreading among the homeless. Newsom did not specify when the state would be able to reach its 15,000-room goal.
The task of sheltering California’s homeless is a daunting one to be sure. The placement of nearly 900 homeless people amounts to less than 1 percent of the state’s homeless population of at least 150,000—the largest in the country. It’s possible that the number of homeless people placed in hotels and motels could be higher since Newsom’s figure doesn’t include individuals relocated by county health and social workers.
Christopher Martin, a legislative advocate with Housing California, applauded the governor’s efforts amid the pandemic. But he cautioned that for hotels to get up and running quicker, local governments will need more funding to provide mental health, addiction and other services residents need.
“The obvious challenge is resources,” says Martin. “One thing we’re hearing is a capacity challenge in terms of staffing. We had a shortage before, and so scaling that may be difficult.”
Under a cost-sharing agreement, FEMA will fund 75 percent of hotel leases. Only homeless people who test positive for the virus, exhibit symptoms, or are particularly susceptible to the virus because of their age or underlying health conditions will be allowed in hotel rooms for which the federal government is paying.
In addition to hotels and motels, the state has been trying to secure trailers. Of the 1,300 trailers the state purchased from FEMA two weeks ago, Newsom said nearly 600 have been distributed though not all of those are occupied yet.
Beyond that, the state has poured $800 million into homelessness services since the virus outbreak.
Newsom pledged to find a permanent solution for the homeless once the pandemic has subsided, adding that the state has options to purchase the hotels in many of the negotiated leases. “We’re not just thinking short term,” said Newsom.
Matt Levin is a former research associate for the Public Policy Institute of California, where he specialized in quantitative analysis of poverty and social policy. He wrote this piece for calmatters.org.