The Roomkey Project has housed thousands of homeless California residents. Will the model live after the pandemic?



Lana Howard has been homeless for two decades. Still, the 75-year-old Texas native says she’d rather live on the streets of Sacramento than in a traditional dorm-style homeless shelter, where she describes conditions as “hell.”

“When you’re in a shelter, you don’t have privacy,” Howard said, stopping for a moment in the city’s River District. “There is nothing there that belongs to you. Even your business is not yours. I’d rather be here than there.

Howard is not alone. Many homeless residents refuse to live in group shelters because they feel unsafe or do not allow people to live with a partner or a pet, among other rules, according to those who work with residents without. shelter and CapRadio talks with several homeless people.

Lana Howard, 75, a homeless resident of Sacramento, says if she had a choice, she would rather live in a private room instead of a traditional dormitory-style homeless shelter.Chris Nichols / CapRadio

To convince people like Howard to accept shelter, advocates say communities should build on the statewide Project Roomkey model of providing private rooms to homeless residents as a step towards recovery. securing permanent housing.

As COVID-19 spread statewide, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration launched Roomkey last spring to shelter homeless Californians in motel rooms and other un-congregated places such as trailers. .

Supporters say the program has prevented major outbreaks of the virus in the homeless community and offers a better way to connect residents to housing and social services. They say the rooms offer simple but profound perks – clean water, the ability to shower, and dignity.

But a year after Roomkey launched, some local governments are gradually cutting back their motel programs citing their high cost, questioning whether the system will continue or go away once the pandemic is over.

More than 12,000 Californians, once homeless, stayed in Roomkey motel rooms last month, according to the Newsom administration. The program has served approximately 36,000 people since its inception.

Newsom’s senior homelessness adviser said the Roomkey model should continue, although some changes need to be made.

“People do better in non-collective shelters,” said Jason Elliott, senior advisor at Newsom. “They are able to stabilize faster and for a longer time. We are able to work with them to accommodate them more frequently. So it’s just a model that works better. ”

Margot Kushel, director of the UC San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations, said permanent housing is the best solution for people who are homeless. But she described private rooms as a better “middle ground” on the road to housing as long as social services are provided.

In relation to group shelters, Kushel said the researchers found that ungathered settings provide people with more sleep, are less disorienting, and may give residents a chance to complete the paperwork necessary to log in to services.

“I think for a lot of people they found them a lot less chaotic. They felt much safer, ”she added.

Not all Roomkey residents say the program has delivered on its promises.

Shannon Hood said he moved to the Hampton Inn in Roseville in December as part of the Placer County program. He said he had been homeless for about a month after being evicted from his apartment in Lincoln.

Hood said county social workers promised to eventually put him in touch with longer-term housing options, but “none of that happened.” Instead, Hood said he plans to buy and live in a truck with the money he saved.

“They’re not housing anybody,” Hood said.

Placer County spokesperson Katie Combs-Prichard said this was not the case. She said all Roomkey participants were connected to a case manager and 58 people had moved from the county program to permanent or transitional housing.

In total, the county has placed 331 people in motel rooms since the program began.

How long will Roomkey last?

Some local government officials say Roomkey’s high cost makes long-term sustainability difficult.

Roomkey typically costs $ 4,000 per room each month, including services like security, case management, food, and laundry. The federal government reimburses these costs to local governments at least until September.

Despite the refunds, officials in Placer and Fresno counties told CapRadio that their contracts with motel owners would expire at the end of June, while others like Yolo County are terminated on an ongoing basis. monthly.

In Sacramento County, officials were set to begin closing Roomkey motels this spring due to the high cost of the program until county supervisors asked them to find a way to extend stays at the motels until. in August.

Julie Field, manager of the Sacramento County homelessness services program, told supervisors last month that the county’s three Roomkey motels were never meant to be a permanent shelter.

“For an emergency response, it all made a lot of sense. But as a response to homelessness and a response to housing, it is not the most cost-effective model, ”she said.

Sonia De La Rosa, senior administrative analyst for Fresno County, said the county sees the benefit of private rooms. But that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to last.

“We are looking at various options,” said De La Rosa. “I think motels could be one way to do it. But I also think maybe of other options. We’re looking at the possibility of tiny houses or mobile homes, different things like that. But it’s coming. It depends on how much funding we get and whether or not we can do something like that. ”

“This is exactly what we need”

Faye Wilson Kennedy, co-chair of the Campaign for the Poor of Sacramento, said all levels of government should find the resources for private rooms because they provide a setting that “looks like normal life for most people.”

“If we are to reintegrate people who have been homeless for a long time, this is exactly what we need,” Kennedy added. “It may be cheaper to accommodate people in a dormitory. But is this how we want people to live for years and years? We must treat people with dignity and respect. One way or another, we have to find the resources. As a country, we can find the resources to wage war. But we have to find the resources to house people, to educate people. ”

Since the start of the pandemic, the state has sent $ 512 million to cities and counties to pay for non-collective shelters, while the federal government has provided billions of dollars more, according to the Newsom administration.

The next opportunity for Newsom to support these programs is through its revised budget, which is expected to be released this month.

Elliott, Newsom’s homeless adviser, declined to say whether this budget will include more money for Roomkey. However, he said the governor intends to increase spending on the state’s Homekey project, which awarded cities and counties $ 800 million last year to buy and renovate motels and resorts. hotels.

This Roomkey follow-up initiative has created approximately 6,000 permanent housing units for the homeless. There are now about 8,200 once homeless people living in these permanent units, said Elliott, some of whom previously lived in Temporary Roomkey rooms.

Mary Roy, a homeless resident of Sacramento, says that if given a choice, she would rather live in a private room instead of a traditional sleeping-style homeless shelter.Chris Nichols / CapRadio

Newsom offered to spend $ 1.75 billion on Homekey in its January budget.

“Certainly with the amount of surplus and federal stimulus (funds) that we have now, we plan to increase that number,” Elliott added, referring to the May budget.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Jason Elliott’s name. This has been corrected.

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