Only Half of All Hotel Rooms for Homeless Filled in California

San Diego, Orange Counties at 30% or below capacity

California Globe, May 19, 2020

By Evan Symon

On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom’s office released Project Roomkey data showing that just over 7,000 of the nearly 17,000 state and FEMA-leased hotel rooms and trailers set aside for homeless use during the coronavirus pandemic have been filled.

Lower than expected capacity rates statewide

Since being launched in early April, Project Roomkey has shown mixed but decidedly low placement rates around the state.

The project has housed 1,000 of the 8,000 homeless in San Francisco County, with Sacramento County filling 280 of the 420 rooms it set aside.

Los Angeles County has also reported generally higher rates, with 2,102 out of 3,245 rooms filled.

Among the best were Riverside County and Ventura County who reported having 100% of its 266 rooms filled and more than 80% of its 388 rooms filled respectively.

Counties are also expecting more rooms and approved homeless people to fill them. Sacramento County is currently awaiting plans to open another 570 rooms as soon as it sorts through the large number of homeless people waiting for room placement while LA County has a list of 15,000 homeless people who fit the Project’s criteria for room placement and has been filling rooms as quick as possible as soon as they become available.

However, other counties have clocked in with lower rates. LA County adjacent Orange County has reported under 30% of its 666 rooms have been filled since April, with San Diego County only filling 20% of its roughly 2,000 open rooms. While the counties have devised other solutions, such as San Diego housing 1,200 homeless people at the San Diego Convention Center, they largely don’t provide the quarantine measures needed for social distancing and health safety that hotel rooms can afford.

“We literally have people waiting around for rooms,” said “Catherine,” a homeless services worker who didn’t want her name or location to be known. “We were supposed to care about them, because all of these people here can more easily contract COVID-19. But instead those rooms stay unused, eating up state money renting them, while we have to juggle around people who can’t stay in shelters and don’t want to stay on the street.”

“One guy who was a regular, Army guy who served in Desert Storm, he has an autoimmune disease and other things like Gulf War Syndrome, which means he is more likely to contract it. The county has hundreds of open hotels, and he waits a few blocks away from a mostly empty one and just hopes he is allowed in ASAP.”

“And that’s just one guy. There are dozens of others who meet state help here who meet the criteria for rooms. It’s the same at every shelter or encampment.”

Early successes, growing problems for cities

The state announced that the program was a success in late April when the goal of 15,000 hotel rooms was met. Some state officials have echoed this sentiment, with some lawmakers noting that it’s simply stepping stone to greater homeless housing coverage.

“It is a very challenging moment, but it is an opportunity to reimagine and transform the homeless service system and frankly accelerate the work we’ve already been doing,” noted Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles Christina Miller earlier this week.

However, the numbers are much lower than expected, with many lawmakers and local leaders finding numerous issues and problems arising. Shortages of staff to treat and care for the homeless at hotels have been reported in many counties, causing a delay in room fillings and new hotels opening up.

Protests by local homeowner and resident groups, concerned over the impact of an impromptu homeless shelter opening up, as well as the question of what will happen to them as soon as the lockdown is over, have delayed many hotels from opening up to homeless people.

Many homeless people have also refused help, and many rooms were reported to have not opened yet because of needed repairs. Hotels in downtown areas have also been much likelier to refuse the state and FEMA lease rates in favor of physical guests, keeping many of the closest potential temporary hotel accommodations away from the higher density homeless populations of downtown areas.

Cities are also finding issues over the question of how they can be moved to more permanent housing and how cities can handle larger amounts of homeless people in shelters without an increase in funding or personnel.

“This has not been a challenge of leasing hotels,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg earlier this week. “The challenge is much more in insufficient numbers of service providers to deal with a much larger capacity of people and a big question about rehousing.”

City funding and the lack of cheaper motels in cities

Funding and motels with no vacancies have also been issues for cities.

“Some Mayors have been asking for more funding because of a need for a better choice of hotels, not enough hotel rooms being ready despite being under lease, or simply because they need more in areas not being served,” explained Motel owner Hugh Connelly. “But the thing is, more money won’t get you entire motels to lease. They’re already under week-to-week leases by other people.”

“You see, there are a lot of motels in poorer areas, or in areas that serve the working and lower class. A lot of these people were forced out of apartments because of higher rental prices, so they had to take rooms, like in my motel. There’s a lot of homeless near motels too.”

“When the state came in and started asking for any leases to all of these motels near homeless populations, we told them that it simply couldn’t happen as they were already filled by week to week renters who have been forced out of apartments since the recession 12 years ago.”

“That’s why there’s a lot of unhoused. That’s why there is nothing cheap available in downtown areas. They were already taken years ago. Why do you think they’ve had to come into agreements with chains like Motel 6? Because that was the cheapest available option.”

“California did this to itself.”

Project Roomkey is expected to increase occupancy in all counties throughout May.

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