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California Struggles To House Thousands Of Homeless Placed In Hotels During Pandemic

After three years of bouncing between shelters, relatives' couches and a tent she pitched in downtown San Francisco, Gillette Christa, 63, and her 17-month-old dog, Shepherd, finally got 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. And now she's waiting to find out if she'll get placed into long-term assisted housing.

"I'm trying to stay optimistic," she said.

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 near San Francisco, which was analyzed by KQED, show that nearly 16% of the people who have already been discharged from the hotels as of Nov. 20 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.

Counties across the state are beginning to stop operating these hotels as shelters and are moving as many as possible into permanent housing.

But that's a big challenge in a state that already has a chronic shortage of affordable housing. The California Housing Partnership estimates the state needs 1.3 million new affordable homes for all the people who need them.

"No matter how you look at it, the big picture is the big picture," said Heather Freinkel, a managing attorney for the Homeless Action Center. "There is not enough permanent housing."

Last month, Newsom announced $62 million in grants for counties to help them transition more people into long-term homes, 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 for some of the hotels and other buildings to be converted into permanent and transitional housing. It will create more than 6,000 new units of permanent and transitional housing.

But it's still a small fraction of the need.

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."

Mounting costs

In San Francisco, officials have backed off plans to stop operating seven of its Project Roomkey hotels by the end of the month, and will instead keep operating them through March. The remaining 22 hotels are slated to cease operating as a shelter in November.

San Francisco supervisors on Wednesday urged city officials to keep the hotels open for as long as possible and introduced legislation last month to mandate that everyone in the hotels gets placed into permanent housing.

But Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the city's interim director of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, 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.

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.

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

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

A place to grow

For those who have gotten into long-term housing, the program has been a lifeline.

Jessica Ellis, 45, 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.

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, 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."

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."

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.

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."

Homeless people wait to be checked-in to a hotel room in Venice Beach, Calif., on April 26. The NGO St. Joseph Center is providing Hotel rooms to the homeless people at risk or infected with COVID-19, through Project Roomkey of the City of Los Angeles.
Apu Gomes / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Homeless people wait to be checked-in to a hotel room in Venice Beach, Calif., on April 26. The NGO St. Joseph Center is providing Hotel rooms to the homeless people at risk or infected with COVID-19, through Project Roomkey of the City of Los Angeles.

A long-term home

San Francisco's 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."

With the coronavirus infection rates rising and many congregate shelters closed or at reduced capacity, advocates for people experiencing homelessness say it's critical that the people in these hotels stay housed.

Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine and the director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California in San Francisco said it would be "unconscionable" to allow older, medically vulnerable people chosen for the program to go back into homelessness.

"To return them to homelessness would be a big lost opportunity and frankly, a tragedy," she said.

Gillette Christa said she's not sure when she'll find out whether she'll 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 into long-term housing.

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

Copyright 2020 KQED

Erin Baldassari