Can a program created to help some of the most vulnerable during the pandemic successfully morph into permanently helping the unsheltered and homeless?
That's what the State of California is exploring as it transitions its Project Roomkey, designed to temporarily house "medically vulnerable" people living in shelters or on the street, to Project Homekey, which will purchase motels, hotels and apartment buildings for transformation into permanent housing.
"Galvanizing" is the word Kerry Abbott, director of Alameda County's Department of Homeless Care and Coordination, used to describe the possibilities.
"Project Roomkey proved to our local agencies and constituents that we can move fast," she said. "What an opportunity [Homekey offers] for us to house vulnerable people during a time when they are already getting food and medical attention, as we work on their permanent housing needs."
Launched in April, Project Roomkey focuses on moving shelter residents from "congregant housing," as well as moving unhoused people living on the streets, who were either at high risk of contracting Covid-19, or had already tested positive. Although, according to state statistics, Roomkey has temporarily housed 14,200 "extremely vulnerable individuals" in three months, that represents only a small percentage of California's estimated 151,000 homeless and unsheltered population. Alameda County alone has slightly more than 8,000 who fall within that designation, while Contra Costa County has approximately 2,300, based on 2019 surveys.
(State and counties define "unsheltered" as those without any form of housing, as in living on the streets, while "homeless" can include people living in their cars and couch surfing with family and friends.)
Funded initially by $600 million of the $1.3 billion in newly available and eligible funding, part of the state budget Gov. Gavin Newsom signed June 29, Homekey "will allow for the largest expansion of housing for people experiencing homelessness in recent history, while addressing the continuing health and social service needs of this vulnerable population," according to a state press release. Of the $600 million in Homekey grant funds, $550 million is derived from the state's direct allocation of the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief Funds (CRF), and $50 million is derived from the State's General Fund.
Under the program, counties, cities and certain other entities will partner with the state to acquire hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, nonresidential properties and residential care facilities, which will be rehabbed into permanent residences. Project partnerships between local entities, including nonprofits, are encouraged.
The transition to Project Homekey was publicly announced on June 30 by Newsom in front of a Motel 6 in Pittsburg already being used for Project Roomkey. According to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, the site was chosen because the county had already begun working on purchasing the property, which has 174 rooms, 140 of which are being used by Roomkey.
Contra Costa is leasing 566 hotel and motel rooms to provide safer housing for homeless individuals, with the rooms at 97 percent capacity, Gioia said. Many of those housed under Roomkey were relocated from the Richmond Rescue Mission, and the county shelters in North Richmond and Concord.
"We don't want to send people back to shelters and encampments," he said. Contra Costa is also negotiating to purchase a Courtyard Marriott in San Pablo, which has 141 rooms and 8 suites, and looking at other sites, Gioia said.
Don Desai, owner of the Pittsburg Motel 6, reported a "very positive experience with Project Roomkey, in a time of dire need to sustain revenue. [Homekey] seems win-win for county and business owner, so we are exploring this opportunity."
By early July, Alameda County had leased 443 rooms for those vulnerable to Covid-19, of which 96 percent were in use, and had reserved another 198 rooms for those who tested positive for the virus.
Alameda County's Board of Supervisors voted on June 30 to enter into rental agreements with five properties—the Radisson Hotel, Comfort Inn & Suites, the Days Hotel in Oakland, and the Quality Inn and Rodeway Inn in Berkeley. Of these, the county has an option on four to purchase, potentially using Homekey funding.
But Bay Area property values present a major obstacle for both counties. Abbott pointed out that the $100,000 "per door" guidelines the state has provided fit very few properties here. Homekey will "be an incentive," she said. According to a July 24 state webinar, eligible entities can apply using properties that exceed the base, but a 1-to-1 financial match will be required, which is why established partnerships may well be the key to successful applications.
Gioia noted, "Some funding [to purchase properties] may be county operational money, but we would be seeking reimbursement under the Federal CARES Act."
State materials explain that, "counties and cities can access billions more in additional federal stimulus funding which, while available for a variety of purposes, is eligible to be used to provide safe shelter for homeless individuals during the pandemic."
Gov. Newsom also announced $45 million in philanthropic support, including $25 million from Kaiser Permanente and $20 million from Blue Shield of California, for a new services subsidy fund directed at counties that are implementing Homekey. "These contributions, originally announced in January as part of the governor's proposed Access to Housing Fund, were redirected by the companies to support the Homekey effort," state materials add.
Another difficulty is the speed at which the funds must be used. Applications are now open for cities and counties, but "priority applications," which will be funded using geographic criteria, are due Aug. 13. Final applications are due Sept. 29.
As described, Homekey would use CARES Act funds that must be spent by December 30, meaning escrow must be closed on purchases. Alameda and Contra Costa counties would have to reach agreements with the cities in which properties are located, and then finalize the sales by that deadline. Priority will be given to "Tier One" projects, properties that can be occupied within 90 days, and where permanent housing is the goal.
Yet another question that has been raised is how to effectively expand Roomkey's focus on a specific segment of the homeless and unsheltered population to include others who were not eligible under the original guidelines. Emphasizing that Roomkey eligibility did not mean people were excluded, but that the medically vulnerable were prioritized, Abbott said, "We are trying to bring in other people who were not at the top of the list."
Lourdes M. Castro Ramirez, State of California Secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, speaking during the July 24 webinar, stated that Homekey designers were aware of the "deeply inequitable impact of homelessness on Black and Latinix communities."
According to Geoffrey Ross, Assistant Deputy Director, State of California Department of Housing and Community Development, speaking during the same session, applications that actively address racial inequities are encouraged. Yet each city and county's needs vary, he said, and "Homekey has been intentionally designed not to be 'one size fits all.'"
To some extent, Contra Costa and Alameda counties will need to work together to help a population that includes transient people. Abbott said Alameda County data shows that 80 percent of homeless and unsheltered people in the county became homeless in that county, leaving only 15–20 percent who are transient. Nevertheless, she said, a regional group is already operating, collaborating on how to move forward together, and Alameda shares data with Contra Costa weekly.
"The Contra Costa and Alameda county health departments already coordinate," Gioia said, agreeing that the program needs a regional approach.
Gioia and Abbott both commented on possible increases in the populations Homekey will serve. "The state is releasing incarcerated people, many of whom have housing issues," said Gioia. Abbott pointed to the possible end of eviction moratoriums, leading to more people losing their housing.
Of course, even an extremely successful Project Homekey cannot solve the complex matrix of problems that creates homelessness. Job loss, unsustainably high housing costs, psychological and emotional issues, addictions, domestic violence—all of these and other factors contribute to someone, or a family, becoming homeless or unsheltered.
Homekey is much more likely to form part of the complementary group of housing proposals, including the tiny homes, granny flats and garage apartments that cities, counties and the state are beginning to re-zone for. A Contra Costa County project in San Pablo is using HUD funding to build 70 units of permanent housing for the homeless and unsheltered. Alameda County bought a 92-unit building close to Lake Merritt destined for both immediate shelter and long-term housing.
Residents in some areas will have to abandon long-held NIMBY attitudes to allow some of these changes to move forward. But there is reason to hope that a door has opened on what has seemed an intractable problem.
"We've long dreamed about scooping up thousands of motel rooms and converting them into housing for our homeless neighbors," Newsom said in the state press release. "The terrible pandemic we're facing has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy all these vacant properties, and we're using federal stimulus money to do it. Hand in hand with our county partners, we are on the precipice of the most meaningful expansion of homeless housing in decades."
"The pandemic has given people a sense of urgency in responding to homelessness," said Abbott. "Homekey is a small investment in this. But it's a challenge to us in a positive way."