Project Roomkey, a state public health initiative launched in April to get vulnerable homeless people into hotel or motel rooms during the coronavirus pandemic, got off to a rocky start in Orange County.
But weeks later, some homeless people are being sheltered — even as county data suggests the death rate for people living on local streets is surging during the pandemic.
Initially, the Roomkey plan sounded like a win-win-win.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency would pay for rooms at properties that otherwise were sitting empty because of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. In turn, homeless people could ride out the pandemic in places other than crowded shelters, where the virus can easily spread.
An Illumination Foundation mobile medical unit is parked beside the ALO Hotel in Orange, the first site in Orange County to house homeless people being isolated during the coronavirus pandemic under a statewide program called Project Roomkey. Illumination Foundation provides all the services at five hotels that the county is leasing with money to be reimbursed by federal funds. Project Roomkey was initiated in April 2020 throughout California by Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Photo by Theresa Walker, Orange County Register/SCNG)
That arrangement, in theory, could protect both the homeless and the general public, given that the virus is particularly virulent among people in poor health — something that’s true for many of those who’ve lived outdoors, often while facing substance abuse or mental disorders.
But the first 90-day contract in early April with a hotel operator in Orange County — the Ayres Hotel near Laguna Woods and its own at-risk population of senior citizens — was canceled within days. Locals protested the idea of homeless moving nearby and the city threatened a lawsuit. The hotel owner wanted to back out and the county agreed. Other legal action involving a different Project Roomkey hotel, this one in Laguna Hills, fell apart.
Now, a month later, five Roomkey hotels — in Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Orange, Stanton, and the Laguna Hills site — are up and operating. The county’s former detention center for minors, Joplin Youth Center in bucolic Trabuco Canyon, also has been retrofitted as a sanctuary for homeless people whose age or underlying health conditions put them at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus.
How is it working? That depends on whom you ask.
The first-of-its-kind initiative, announced at the end of March by Gov. Gavin Newsom with a target of up to 15,000 rooms in areas with large homeless populations, has drawn both howls of protest and words of praise.
But for some who don’t get a hotel room, or any shelter, the answer might mean the difference between life or death.
At last count (in early 2019), Orange County had a homeless population of about 7,000 people, more than half of whom regularly sleep without shelter.
Last month, the number of homeless people who died without any “known abode” in Orange County surged to 34 men and women — the deadliest month for local homeless in five years and up from 24 deaths in March.
As of Monday, only one of those 34 deaths was attributed to COVID-19, but the cause of death for most of the rest is still pending, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
And data through May 9 suggests the homeless death count this month is on pace to match April.
It was only last week that Orange County started placing people who were on the streets into hotel rooms.
Advocates who have long called for utilizing aging motels as permanent supportive housing for homeless people feel the county’s execution of Project Roomkey so far has been too slow and too narrowly focused. At least one of the hotels is a source of complaints.
County officials and representatives from the Illumination Foundation, the nonprofit that provides homeless services at the hotels, acknowledge some early glitches. But they also feel that Project Roomkey is offering better living conditions for those placed at the hotels so far — a number that by last week was up to 240 people.
“We’re trying to give folks who don’t have the ability to shelter in place, or stay at home, a place to do that and be safe,” said Jason Austin, who oversees Orange County’s homelessness outreach as the director of care coordination.
The 127-room ALO Hotel in Orange, the first to open on April 3, and the Laguna Hills Inn, with 76 rooms, have been designated for the sick or symptomatic. An analysis provided by the county showed that on May 4, a month after Project Roomkey’s start, 46 people had been sent to the ALO, and the Laguna Hills Inn was empty. And on the same day, three sites designated for people who haven’t tested positive, the Stanton Inn & Suites, the SpringHill Suites in Huntington Beach and a Holiday Inn in Anaheim — which, combined, could hold 463 people — housed 172 people. Only the Stanton hotel was full.
The rooms are being leased under 90-day contracts at daily rates ranging from $70 to $120.
One key to achieving the public health goal of Project Roomkey is keeping people sheltering in the hotels once they get there.
Paul Leon, a former public health nurse and president of Illumination Foundation, said feedback from residents has been mostly positive.
“We’ve had some people leave,” said Leon, who clarified that they had not tested positive for coronavirus.
“(But) what we are seeing is they will leave, but then some wanted to come back. We said, ‘OK, but you can’t keep doing that.’”
The hotel rooms come with no frills (pools are drained; gyms are locked) and some restrictions. Residents aren’t free to come and go on their own, relying instead on Illumination Foundation for limited transportation or a health transit service paid for by MediCal.
For people who aren’t in the hotels, the county-run shelters also are imposing added restrictions during the pandemic. The shelters have been reconfigured to provide 6 feet of social distancing between beds, county officials said.
For now, those shelters have been thinned out, either due to the hotel placements or people leaving on their own because of added restrictions, Austin said.
The shelters have been instructed to hold the beds of those who have gone to the hotels until they return.
Austin said over the past six weeks there have been few behavior-related issues or calls to law enforcement.
“It’s working well,” Leon added. “We’ll see it ramp up.”
Homeless people taking part in Project Roomkey report different experiences at different sites.
Some are grateful to be in a room of their own; others, while also glad for some privacy, cite problems with getting their medications, transportation, and other issues.
Kimber Bartel and Eileen Valenzuela, two women who became friends at the Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter in Anaheim, have compared their stays so far at the temporary hotel sites — one in Huntington Beach and the other in Anaheim.
Bartel, 57 and homeless for eight months, wrote a lengthy and detailed email on May 3 that was widely circulated among homeless services providers and county officials. She also sent it to FEMA and to the Register.
Among the issues she raised: a lack of communication to residents about the restrictions of participating in the hotel program; lack of control over their own prescription medications, and transportation snafus.
“They keep saying that they have transportation but I witnessed at least three scenes with people here, huge arguments in the lobby with program management,” Bartel said.
“Medications are still being lost. They do not bring the right meals.”
Residents aren’t allowed to visit each other’s rooms and, without keys to their own rooms, must be let back in by a security guard. Such restrictions are standard at all the hotels.
Bartel — who has college degrees and worked as a technical writer but suffers from bipolar disorder — said that since she went public with her complaints only some conditions have improved.
“The diabetics here are having a really bad time,” she said, because they can’t get to their medication right away.
Leon said Illumination Foundation staff has been in contact with Bartel to work out the problems at SpringHill.
Bartel, who is writing a journal about her experience being homeless, worries about what will happen when homeless people who are brought in from the street, and not used to following rules, begin staying at the hotels. She plans to stick it out.
“I will stay until I get this finished,” she said of her journal. “It’s hard to write in a shelter where you literally — not even in the bathroom — are ever alone.”
Bartel’s friend, Valenzuela, 38, is loving her time at the Holiday Inn in Anaheim.
She’s been homeless for four years, most of that time on the street, struggling with a meth habit. Valenzuela, born and raised in Westminster and a former lunch lady at her old grade school, said the Bridges shelter, and now the hotel, have each been a big step from life outdoors.
She said she’s been clean from drugs since early February.
“I want a different life. I was tired of that life.”
“My experience here has been almost the opposite to Kimber’s,” Valenzuela said, refering to Bartel. Valenzuela hopes that her husband — currently in jail — will be able to join her if he is released while she still has the room.
Until then, she hopes to see more homeless people from the streets brought to hotels during the pandemic.
“If they can help somebody, they should help somebody.”