The Bay Area COVID Hotel Experience: Success and Uncertainty

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For much of the past year, Heather Chavez waited for fear of being evicted from the comfortable Livermore hotel room that had become her refuge during the COVID pandemic.

As funding deadlines came and went and residents received frightening notices warning them that they would have to move soon, she was terrified of having to go back to sleep in a car or motorhome on the edge of the river. road.

Instead, after months of uncertainty, Chavez and her husband recently secured a subsidized apartment in Alameda. It’s 10 blocks from the beach and allowed them to bring their 13 year old pitbull, Chico.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, adding that she had cried when she heard the news. “I dreamed of it when I was little. For you, that may not be much. But for me that’s it, you know?

Chavez is a success of Project Roomkey, Governor Gavin Newsom’s experimental program that has so far housed more than 42,000 unhoused Californians vulnerable to COVID in hotel rooms. Experts say hotels have played an important role in reducing the number of COVIDs among homeless populations. They have also enabled people to stabilize chronic health conditions, obtain identity cards and other documents, register for social security benefits and, in some cases, obtain permanent housing. .

OAKLAND, CA – SEPTEMBER 17: Cesar Chavez, left, and his wife Heather Chavez unpack and organize their home in their newly acquired apartment in Alameda, Calif. On Friday, September 17, 2021. The couple had been living in a hotel in Livermore for over d ‘one year as part of the state’s efforts to keep vulnerable homeless people off the streets during the pandemic. After the hotel closed in July, they were able to acquire a subsidized apartment in Alameda. (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

But there have been some pitfalls along the way, especially as the program draws to a close. Federal Emergency Management Agency funding that was set to expire this month has been extended until the end of the year, leaving some Bay Area counties to scramble to try and keep their hotels open longer. long time. Others, like San Mateo County, have already shut down their programs, despite the continuing threat from the delta variant.

And many hotel residents remain in limbo, unsure of where they will end up.

“I don’t want to coat them in sugar and say they were perfect,” said Dr Margot Kushel, professor of medicine and director of the Homelessness and Housing Initiative at UCSF Benioff, of of Roomkey hotels. “But even with these imperfections, we have seen incredible transformations in people’s health.”

So far, Alameda County has moved more than 1,000 people from Roomkey hotels to long-term housing, said Kerry Abbott, director of the Alameda County office for homeless care and coordination. . About 71% of former Roomkey customers have found housing – that’s more than double the success rate of traditional homeless shelters, she said.

“It has been such an exciting program,” Abbott said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s been a roller coaster not knowing what the next step will be with the funding and extensions to FEMA and everything, but we continue to see so many wonderful stories coming out of it.”

This is in part because the pandemic has unlocked additional funds for long-term housing, Abbott said, but it is also because Roomkey Hotels have provided guests with mental health support, from case managers to help them find housing and other services.

Alameda County hopes to use FEMA’s extension funding to keep three of its remaining Roomkey hotels open until the end of the year.

Santa Clara, San Francisco, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties did not immediately provide information on the percentage of Roomkey attendees who left for permanent housing. Santa Clara County has six motels open to homeless people at risk of COVID and plans to close two this month. San Francisco and Contra Costa County are studying the impact of extended FEMA funding on their Roomkey programs.

In San José, dozens of homeless people have been staying for months – and in some cases more than a year – in rooms at the SureStay Hotel by Best Western. The city recently bought the hotel and is in the process of transforming it from a free, temporary shelter into long-term subsidized apartments. As of October 1, residents will be required to pay $ 627 per month. Those who cannot afford it will have to leave – move into a temporary mini-house or go to a traditional shelter.

San Jose plans to transform a Best Western hotel at 1488 N. First Street into a homeless housing complex. City of San José

But many residents receive less than $ 1,000 a month in Social Security benefits. Most are elderly, disabled or chronically ill, and some have mobility issues that require walkers and wheelchairs. They don’t want to uproot their lives and move into a tiny house that is much smaller than their hotel room. And they’re worried that other accommodation sites will be further away from public transport, forcing them to share a bathroom, and not leading to long-term accommodation.

Brian Hargrave, who moved into the SureStay hotel from a group shelter in Sunnyvale seven months ago, said the time to recuperate in his own room had “really done wonders” for his health. The 46-year-old, who has breathing problems and mobility issues, says his body hurts less now and his doctor has been able to cut back on some of his medications. Hargrave has applied for disability benefits, and if approved, he hopes to stay at SureStay. But he expects his monthly check to be around $ 900, which doesn’t leave a lot of money for food and other bills.

“It’s going to be a fight,” he said.

The state program that funded San Jose’s purchase of the hotel allows the city to charge residents up to 30% of the area’s median income in rent – or $ 828, according to the spokesperson for the city, Jeff Scott. To accommodate low-income residents, the city opted for $ 627 instead, he said.

“The city has learned a lot from SureStay and how to structure the program,” Scott wrote in an email. SureStay is the first Roomkey hotel in the county to transition to permanent accommodation. “We will be reconsidering the rental amounts over the next six months. “

When Chavez’s hotel – the Residence Inn in Livermore – closed its Roomkey program in late July, 59% of occupants moved into permanent accommodation, according to Vivian Wan, chief operating officer of Abode Services, who oversaw the relocations. Another 14% went to emergency shelters and 14% ended up on the streets.

“It’s very heavy to house so many people at once,” said Wan, “because they all need to be housed, like, now. “


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