The Inn at Temescal is one of several local hotels under renovation for the Homekey program. (Thomas Brouns)

For nearly a year the COVID-19 pandemic has confined Californians to their homes. For homeless people, this has not been an option. Since April 2020, California’s response to this has been Project Roomkey, a state initiative to temporarily house homeless people with COVID-19, or those who are at higher risk of contracting the disease, in vacant hotel and motel rooms. Since then, thousands of unsheltered people across the state have moved into these rooms. For some, this was the first time they consistently had a roof over their head in years. But because funding for Project Roomkey expired on December 31, counties across the state are working to transition people into more permanent solutions rather than sending them back out to the streets. 

Alameda County has set an ambitious goal: To offer all the unhoused people who participated in the emergency shelter program permanent, non-congregate housing. Kerry Abbott, the Director of the Office of Homeless Care and Coordination, a part of Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, explained that a patchwork of funding has allowed the county to continue providing support to unhoused people still in need. 

“We are decreasing occupancy and had been planning to transition down the hotels. But when we close a hotel, we either offer housing or we will transfer them to another non-congregate site,” Abbott explained. 

According to Abott, of the 1,425 people who have participated in the Roomkey program in Alameda County since April, 594 have departed and 889 remain. Of those who have exited the program, 316 have been placed in subsidized housing while the others have opted to return to the streets, entered a rehabilitation program, or transferred to a different shelter. 

In early 2019, over 8,000 people in Alameda County were experiencing homelessness, according to the Alameda County Point-in-Time count–a 42 percent increase from 2017. However, many homeless advocates say this is a vast undercount, and estimate that there may be as many as twice that number today as a result of COVID-19 and its economic toll. (Alameda County did not conduct a Point-in-Time count in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.) 

“The response has shown how housing isn’t just a human right, but a public health intervention”

Under Project Roomkey, the county has contracted with local motels to designate two specific projects: Operation Safer Ground and Operation Comfort. 

Operation Safer Ground provides temporary shelter to people over age 65 or with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable. (Operation Safer Ground is no longer accepting new referrals.) 

Operation Comfort provides motel rooms to people with COVID-19 or who have been exposed to others with COVID-19. This program will continue to accept referrals for the foreseeable future. Funding for Project Roomkey under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was originally slated to end in September but was extended to December. Meanwhile Alameda County won $14.5 million from California’s Project Homekey—another state initiative that sprang up in the face of the pandemic, intended to provide funding for localities to purchase hotels and motels to convert into permanent affordable housing. With this money, Alameda County has purchased the Comfort Inn and Days Hotel in Oakland as longer-term non-congregate shelter for exiting Project Roomkey participants. But as the pandemic continues to rage on, these hotels are insufficient to house all those who remain sick or medically vulnerable. 

Abbott explained the importance of finding bridge funding for Project Roomkey. 

“We absolutely don’t want people who are homeless and COVID-positive to be outside or in a congregate setting,” she said. “Operation Comfort provides three meals a day and is an isolation quarantine site.” 

In the final days of January 2021, a number of Project Roomkey participants were unaware of the county’s plans to continue sheltering them after the motels where they currently reside close down. Some reported being given too little time to decide whether or not they wanted to live in the housing options offered, such as group homes. Many believed they would be put back on the streets on January 31, because the program was scheduled to close. 

One of these people was Raphaella Wolf, a current beneficiary of Operation Safer Ground who said she was happy with the program. She likened the size of her room with the San Francisco studio apartment she lived in prior to becoming homeless and appreciates having a refrigerator and microwave. 

“The hotel is on Industrial Parkway West, which means there’s nothing out here but industrial businesses and trucks….then there’s the freeway. It’s a food desert,” she said. But she added, “The hotel partnered with a restaurant where the restaurant makes meals and drops them off…and you go and pick them up in the office or they deliver it to your door. So that’s been great.” 

Unfortunately, everyone would soon have to leave the hotel. “As of now, I have nowhere to go except to my tent at the homeless encampment.” But late on January 26, she said, “I don’t have to leave the motel I am currently in on January 31st, but where and when I am going to be housed by Alameda County after that isn’t decided.” 

The people exiting Project Roomkey are being moved to a variety of locations. The Days Hotel and Comfort Inn offer 240 rooms of permanent supportive housing (PSH), non-congregate housing that offers additional social services to its residents. Separately, the City of Oakland has obtained 163 “deeply affordable” housing units, consisting of 110 units under Bay Area Community Services (BACS), 42 units at Clifton Hall, and 21 units at the Inn at Temescal. 

The County will also rely on subsidized housing in the private market. Using their Pathways to Housing program, the County will help subsidize rental costs. Formerly homeless renters contribute 30 percent of their income to the cost of the rent, and the program provides the balance. Though the Pathways program has succeeded in housing a number of formerly homeless people in Alameda County, negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness does make some landlords hesitant to participate in the program. Advocates have also criticized the type of housing that is made available to participants in the program, and the efficacy of the program as a whole. 

In the longer term, Alameda County intends to rely on its “Home Together Plan”—completed in late August 2020—which envisions eliminating homelessness in Alameda County over a five-year period using a broad array of interventions as part of a comprehensive approach. Though the plan is expensive, Abbott explained that it would save money in the long run because preventing homelessness costs much less than helping people escape homelessness. 

She explained that the ongoing housing subsidy could end up costing $30,000 a year per household, so you end up saving money by keeping people from entering homelessness in the first plcae by spending the $4,000 per household. 

Homelessness advocate Needa Bee, who is herself unhoused, said she is impressed with Alameda’s assistance to people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic and their openness to feedback. Still, she says, they could do more. 

“When people were like, ‘We don’t like the way these programs are being run,’ Alameda County made some adaptations,” said Bee. She added, “The response has shown how housing isn’t just a human right, but a public health intervention. And it’s totally sad that it took a pandemic for bureaucrats to actually understand that when we’ve been saying this for years.” 

Bee hopes temporary shelter with support services connected to the possibility of permanent housing should continue, adding, “We should be looking beyond the pandemic; rather than asking, ‘How are we going to house people during a pandemic?’ we should be asking, ‘How are we going to house these people, period.’” 

While some advocates are wary about the county’s ability to house so many people so quickly, Abbott remains optimistic about the future of the county’s programs, pointing out that President Biden just signed an order to provide additional assistance for non-congregate shelter costs. 

“Our deep commitment is to make sure that we don’t have to exit peo ple to the street,” Abbott said. “And my ideal would be that we can also start taking people directly from the street into these housing options. That would be amazing.” 

Thomas Brouns is a documentary filmmaker and student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has served four overseas tours as an American diplomat and is a retired U.S. Army officer.