The Coast News Group
Project Roomkey
Project Roomkey is a statewide effort to temporarily shelter homeless populations amid COVID-19. In San Diego County, health officials secured 1,617 hotel rooms for the effort, but only 301 rooms have been used. Photo courtesy of LA County

More than 1,000 hotel rooms to help homeless sit empty

REGION – A review of public records by the LA Times found that only about half of the hotel rooms acquired by California to house homeless individuals amid the COVID-19 pandemic are actually occupied.

In San Diego County, only about 19% of the 1,617 hotel rooms have been filled.

In early April, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey in an effort to provide shelter for homeless individuals as well as the general public who need a place to quarantine due to COVID-19.

The program is largely funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has committed to reimbursing state and local governments for 75% of the cost of leasing hotel rooms and providing services, which include meals, security and custodial services, as well as behavioral health and health care services if needed.

According to the county’s federally mandated Point-in-Time Count, also known as WeAllCount, there are more than 7,500 homeless people in San Diego County, almost 4,000 of them are unsheltered.

Craig Sturak, a spokesman for the San Diego County Health Department, told The Coast News that San Diego County started procuring hotel rooms before Project Roomkey was developed.

As of May 22, the county had secured 1,617 hotel rooms. Of those rooms, 1,375 of them are County of San Diego Public Health Rooms, which are intended for the general public (homeless or not) who require a place to quarantine and are unable to do so because of their living situation. Only 103 of these rooms are currently occupied.

The remaining 222 rooms are managed by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH) and intended specifically for homeless individuals who are considered high risk due to being 65 or older or having health conditions. Of these 222 rooms, 198 are currently occupied.

In total, just 301 rooms have been filled in San Diego County, which is about 19% occupancy. However, the county is only charged for the rooms that are filled, not for the total number of rooms that have been acquired.

“We procured [the rooms] in expectation of a larger number of individuals being exposed or infected and requiring a place for isolation,” Sturak said. “So far during this ongoing health emergency, we have not had the demand that we initially anticipated.”

Of the 222 hotel rooms under RTFH, 120 rooms are being managed by Interfaith Community Services, which is headquartered in Escondido.

Interfaith CEO Greg Anglea told The Coast News that all of their 120 rooms have been filled.

“We have homeless outreach teams that work with law enforcement in each individual city, and those teams selected the individuals who moved into those hotel rooms because they knew them and they knew that they had underlying health conditions,” Anglea said. “They also had some sense that the individual would be successful in a hotel shelter environment.”

It is unclear if the county has implemented similar programs or efforts to fill hotel rooms or what the county’s process is for identifying individuals who may need to shelter in these rooms. It is also unknown how long the county will hold on to the rooms.

When asked why Interfaith didn’t take on more hotel rooms, Anglea explained that they can’t manage additional rooms without hiring more staff. He also said that staffing may be one of the reasons why the county has not been able to fill more rooms.

“These hotel shelters require a lot of staff support because these are many people who have been homeless for years, maybe decades, and some have disabling health conditions,” Anglea said. “We don’t have enough staff to provide all of that support for more rooms. One of the big limiting factors as to what is preventing the region from securing more hotel rooms is the need for staff to provide those services.”

Anglea added that Interfaith is currently hiring, but doesn’t believe they will have the opportunity to manage more rooms through this specific program.

“It’s important to note that there are services at these sites that go beyond simply providing a room,” Sturak said. “We have wrap-around services on-site to support those who need assistance. So securing these rooms should be viewed in the context of our regional response to COVID-19.”