Project Roomkey to shelter homeless people from COVID is extended indefinitely

San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 20, 2020

By Alexei Koseff

SACRAMENTO — A program that has moved thousands of California’s homeless into hotels to protect them from the coronavirus by sheltering alone will continue through the end of the pandemic after the federal government extended funding indefinitely, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Project Roomkey, the program created in April, moves the most vulnerable off the streets, including those 65 or older and anyone with an underlying condition. Hotel rooms allow them to shelter alone.

California previously secured a commitment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for 75% of the program, and cities and counties ultimately rented more than 15,000 hotel and motel rooms. But a requirement to seek renewal from FEMA every 30 days led to constant concern that funding would end. San Francisco and other communities had planned to wind down their programs.

In a letter to “Project Roomkey partners” Friday, Newsom wrote that FEMA “authorized reimbursement for this life-saving mission through the duration of the COVID-19 emergency,” providing greater stability to cities and counties as they work to transition hotel residents into permanent housing. The letter did not specify what would determine the end of the emergency.

“This action serves as acknowledgment of the importance of efforts like Project Roomkey in protecting the most vulnerable Californians and validates all your efforts to implement this first-in-the-nation program,” Newsom said.

The extension also benefits other state programs paid for in part by FEMA, including rooms for health care workers to help them keep their families safer, and for people who must quarantine upon being released from prison.

The state has spent $512 million to help local governments cover the remaining 25% of Project Roomkey costs, according to the governor’s office. There are 15,133 rooms rented for the program, though only about two-thirds are occupied, by an estimated 13,441 people. The rest are largely reserved in case hospitals are overwhelmed and need to move COVID-19 patients, the governor’s office said.

Although it has sheltered thousands during the pandemic, Project Roomkey accounts for a fraction of California’s homeless population. That number climbed to more than 151,000 in the most recent count in 2019, including more than 108,000 who were unsheltered. The pandemic may have driven it even higher as millions of people lost jobs.

The program’s long-term outcomes are unclear. An investigation by the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, published in October, found that just 5% of clients across 36 counties had found a permanent home, while at least 16% returned to the streets. Caseworkers lost track of another 39% after they left the program.

Over the summer, Newsom created a follow-up program called Homekey to buy hotels, vacant apartment buildings and other sites to turn into permanent supportive housing for homeless people. The state has since awarded more than $800 million for projects, including hotels in San Francisco and dormitories in Oakland, which are expected to provide more than 5,000 new units. But some deals, including a hotel purchase in Novato, have collapsed under opposition from local residents.

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