The Bay Area���s COVID Hotel Experiment: Successes And Uncertainty

For much of the past year, Heather Chavez waited in fear of being kicked out of 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 that they’d soon have to move along, she was terrified she’d have to go back to sleeping in a car or RV on the side of the 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 cried when she got the news. “I used to dream about this when I was a little girl. For you, it might not be much. But for me, it’s everything, you know?”

Chavez is a success story of Project Roomkey, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s experimental program that so far has sheltered more than 42,000 unhoused Californians who are vulnerable to COVID in hotel rooms. Experts say the hotels played a big role in keeping COVID numbers down among homeless populations. They’ve also allowed people to stabilize chronic health conditions, obtain ID cards and other documents, sign up for Social Security benefits, and, in some cases, secure permanent housing.

OAKLAND, CA – SEPT 17: Cesar Chavez, left, and his wife Heather Chavez unpack and organize their home at their newly acquired apartment in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The couple lived in a hotel in Livermore for more than a year as part of the state’s effort to keep vulnerable homeless people off the streets during the pandemic. After the hotel shut down in July they were able to acquire a subsidized apartment in Alameda.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

But there have been bumps in the road, particularly as the program winds down. Funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was set to expire this month has been extended through the end of the year, leaving some Bay Area counties scrambling to try and keep their hotels open longer. Others, like San Mateo County, already have closed their programs, despite the ongoing threat of the delta variant.

And many hotel residents remain in limbo, unsure where they’ll end up.

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

So far, Alameda County has moved more than 1,000 people out of Roomkey hotels and into long-term housing, said Kerry Abbott, director of the Alameda County Office of Homeless Care and Coordination. About 71% of former Roomkey guests have gotten into housing – that’s more than double the success rate of traditional homeless shelters, she said.

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

That’s partly because the pandemic unlocked extra funding for long-term housing, Abbott said, but it’s also because the Roomkey hotels gave clients mental health support, case managers to help them look for housing, and other services.

Alameda County is hoping to use the FEMA funding extension to keep three of its remaining Roomkey hotels open through the end of the year.

Santa Clara, San Francisco, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties did not immediately provide information about what percentage of Roomkey participants have left for permanent housing. Santa Clara County has six motels open for unhoused people at risk of catching COVID, and plans to close two this month. San Francisco and Contra Costa County are exploring how the FEMA funding extension will impact their Roomkey programs.

In San Jose, several dozen unhoused 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 middle of transforming it from free, temporary shelter into long-term, subsidized apartments. Starting Oct. 1, residents will have to pay $627 a month. Those who can’t afford that will have to leave – moving into a temporary tiny home or going to a traditional shelter.

San Jose plans to turn a Best Western Hotel at 1488 N. First Street into a homeless housing development. City of San Jose

But many of the 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 aren’t eager to uproot their lives and move into a tiny home that’s much smaller than their hotel room. And they worry other shelter sites are farther from transit, will force them to share a bathroom, and won’t lead to long-term housing.

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 has “truly worked wonders” for his health. The 46-year-old, who has respiratory issues and mobility problems, says his body hurts less now and his doctor was able to reduce some of his medications. Hargrave has applied for disability benefits, and if he’s approved, he hopes to stay at SureStay. But he expects his monthly check will be about $900, which doesn’t leave much money for food and other bills.

“It’s going to be a struggle,” 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 median income in rent — or $828, according to city spokesman Jeff Scott. To accommodate lower-income residents, the city settled on $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 housing. “We will reconsider rent amounts in the next six months.”

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

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

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