In an effort to get people off the streets and out of shelters during the coronavirus pandemic, the state has moved an estimated 14,200 homeless Californians into hotels and motels since April, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.
The state has secured more than 15,670 rooms as part of its Project Roomkey initiative, surpassing the 15,000 goal originally set by the governor. Those rooms are set aside for unhoused residents who either test positive for COVID-19, have been exposed to the virus or may be more susceptible to the virus because of their age or underlying medical conditions.
“I couldn’t be more proud of an effort just in a few months to get 14,200 individuals off the streets, out of encampments and into units like this,” Newsom said, standing in front of a Pittsburg motel currently sheltering 164 homeless people.
At times during his briefing, Newsom was speaking over protesters who shouted “you don’t care about the homeless” and sounded a loud siren.
About 151,000 Californians were homeless as of last year. Some experts worry that number will grow in the coming months, as people forced out of work by the coronavirus pandemic lose their housing.
Throughout the state, 85% of the rooms set aside for people who do not have COVID-19 but are more likely to experience severe symptoms if they contract it have been filled, Newsom said. In all, 293 hotels and motels have been leased throughout 52 of California’s 58 counties. And states including Connecticut and Hawaii now are attempting to replicate Project Roomkey, Newsom said.
The California program has had most of those hotel and motel rooms leased since mid-April, but it has taken counties some time to fill them. On April 18, out of about 11,000 rooms that were ready at that time, just 38% had been filled.
County governments handle the logistics of the program, including leasing the rooms, moving people in and providing services like meals. As long as the rooms house people who have COVID-19 or are especially vulnerable to the virus (people who are over 65 or have compromised immune systems, chronic diseases or other health concerns), the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse county governments for 75% of the costs.
Questions remain about what will happen to people living in these hotels and motels once the pandemic ends and tourists return to the rooms.
But the budget Newsom signed Monday includes $550 million to help local governments buy the hotels and motels — as well as vacant apartment buildings, residential care facilities and tiny homes — and turn them into more long-term housing for homeless people. Newsom’s budget also includes $50 million to help local governments set up services in these newly acquired properties, plus another $300 million in general support for homeless residents.
To emphasize the more permanent nature he hopes the project takes on as counties begin buying hotels and other buildings, Newsom has started referring to his initiative as Project Homekey, instead of Project Roomkey.
The project provides “a sense of permanency,” he said. “A sense of place. A framework of opportunity to anchor the progress we’ve made in the midst of this pandemic, and have something very meaningful to show for it moving forward.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo applauded Newsom’s efforts.
“California’s big cities feel the crisis of homelessness most acutely,” he wrote in a statement. “In unprecedented and uncertain times, we are grateful for the strong commitment of our state elected leaders to supporting cities on the front line working to end homelessness and human suffering.”