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Crowne Plaza San Diego Mission Valley is among the hotels in San Diego County that have agreed to temporarily house and isolate people in need during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

County officials have scrambled in the past month to amass more than 2,000 hotel rooms for potential coronavirus patients and vulnerable homeless San Diegans to try to lessen the burden on local hospitals as the pandemic escalates.

The county considers the rooms throughout the region, most of which now sit empty, a crucial component of the local response to a pandemic – and Gov. Gavin Newsom has praised county leaders for rapidly securing them.

Yet there’s been widespread confusion about who can access the hotel rooms and how people in need can be placed into them, leading to frustration among homeless San Diegans desperate to access them.

While Newsom has called for homeless Californians to be moved into hotels, most of San Diego County’s rooms are for people who have or may have coronavirus but do not have a safe place to isolate – a group that includes people with roommates or family members, and those staying in senior centers or on the street.

About 440 of those rooms are being offered to temporarily house homeless San Diegans who are considered particularly vulnerable – whether because they have underlying health conditions that put them at risk or would otherwise be stuck in packed shelters that don’t meet social distancing standards.

The rooms aren’t cheap. The county has estimated the 2,026 rooms it has secured will cost an average of $200,000 a day – not including expenses for meals, security and other services attached to them.

For now, the county’s substantial reserve fund is covering bills associated with the rooms that are projected to total more than $6 million a month. Newsom signed legislation last month that is expected provide $50 million to help counties across the state to execute agreements with motels, money that may eventually help cover the county’s motel costs.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and other county officials have said they rushed to secure rooms despite those costs knowing that they might become essential later.

“As we expect the (coronavirus case) numbers to continue to increase, the need for these rooms will become much greater, and so we moved early to secure them,” Fletcher said.

The rush for rooms started weeks ago.

Namara Mercer, executive director of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association, said the calls for rooms from the state and county began in mid-March. She couldn’t say how many San Diego hotels have provided rooms since then.

“It kind of all happened pretty darn quick,” Mercer said.

San Diego hotelier Darshan Patel said a county official contacted him for the first time during the third week of March to discuss some of his family’s hotel properties.

Patel said he soon offered up rooms in boutique Hotel Iris in Mission Valley and downtown motel Pacific Inn Hotel & Suites and received a short proposed contract from the county.

“It was four to five sentences and it really just memorialized what our agreement was,” Patel said.

The county offered to pay different rates for Patel’s two motels. Patel declined to elaborate on those rates or to share the contract.

By the end of the week that Patel first heard from the county, officials announced they had already procured nearly 1,800 motel rooms.

“At this point in time, with virus raging as it is and increasing the way that it is, we understood this was a very fluid situation and very rapid-moving, so we needed to get something done for public health and safety reasons, and financial viability reasons,” Patel said.

County spokesman Michael Workman said in an email to VOSD that the county’s focus had been on quickly leasing rooms.

“[Contract] addendums are certainly in the works and anticipating/assessing needs is a constant task,” Workman wrote.

In the weeks since initial contracts with hotels have been signed, people have begun flowing into those rooms.

As of Tuesday, Fletcher said 276 of the 2,026 county-procured motel rooms were filled.

He said the county expects to fill many more of them in coming weeks as the number of coronavirus cases – and the number of people who need to be isolated – rises.

“If our region sees a significant uptick in the number of cases, we could have a much greater need for these public health rooms in particular, which is why we have a significant number of them and why a significant number of them remain empty,” Fletcher said.

The county and the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which is overseeing placements for homeless San Diegans, have faced challenges as they work out protocols to place people in hotels.

The placement process for the two different categories of rooms differs significantly.

The largest grouping of rooms – 1,585 as of Tuesday – are supervised by the county’s public health department. They are for people who have tested positive for coronavirus, are awaiting test results or have shown symptoms of coronavirus but do not have a safe place to stay.

Getting into one of these rooms requires a referral from a health care provider. That provider must call a county placement coordinator to secure a room.

On Tuesday, the county reported that 95 of the 116 people staying in the motel rooms it oversees are homeless San Diegans, though officials have said that people who cannot easily isolate themselves – those who live with a large numbers of other people, for example – were also eligible.

Nancy Miller, who had previously lived in her car, said last week that she was staying at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley as she awaited her test result for coronavirus.

Miller, 63, said she was advised when she moved in early this month that she could only leave the room briefly to let her small dog go to the bathroom. She said workers deliver three meals a day and come by donning yellow hazmat suits to collect trash those staying there set outside their doors.

Miller said she was relieved to have a space to isolate herself after she was initially unable to secure one of the rooms despite meeting the criteria for one. She received a coronavirus test at Scripps Green Hospital last month but was forced to then spend the night in her car, until an advocate and VOSD separately contacted county officials to ask why Miller had not been moved into one of the motel rooms. She arrived at Crowne Plaza the next day.

“They got me in here where I feel safe,” said Miller, who was still awaiting a test result as of last Tuesday.

The Crowne Plaza hotel was quiet on Friday afternoon. Several Allied Universal Security officers were posted near the front lobby doors and a sign on the lobby doors read “Staff Only Beyond This Point.”

A county Sheriff’s Department SUV was parked outside, and some entrances to the 419-room hotel, which is largely open air, were blocked off.

A Crowne Plaza manager declined to comment on the hotel’s work with the county, including how many rooms his company had offered to the county.

Five motels elsewhere in the county have begun taking in homeless San Diegans via a far different process.

On March 18, Fletcher announced that the county would give the Regional Task Force on the Homeless 100 rooms for vulnerable homeless San Diegans who were either over 65 or over 55 with underlying health conditions. He has said that the rooms are not for people who are exhibiting coronavirus symptoms but for people that may be especially at risk of contracting the virus.

In the two weeks since, the county has delivered another 116 rooms and promised another 225 for homeless San Diegans. The county’s focus has also shifted to people in shelters who might be at risk if they aren’t moved elsewhere.

But homeless San Diegans and advocates have had a hard time trying to access the rooms.

Aimee Cox, the Task Force’s chief impact officer, said nearly all of the rooms offered specifically for homeless San Diegans are already accounted for even as the agency rushes to line up services.

As of late Monday, Cox said nonprofit Interfaith Community Services had mostly filled Escondido and Carlsbad motels it has agreed to manage.

Another 54 families who had previously stayed in Father Joe’s Villages’ shelter on the second floor of Golden Hall in the City Hall complex have been placed in two downtown motels.

Cox said the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business group that conducts homeless outreach in the area, is also moving homeless San Diegans it has identified as vulnerable into another downtown motel.

And Cox said the remaining 225 rooms the county has promised will likely need to accommodate 327 homeless San Diegans now staying in the city’s bridge shelters who are seniors or have underlying health conditions.

The task force expects to assess the need for additional motel rooms after the Convention Center begins taking in homeless San Diegans on Wednesday. Officials believe the Convention Center could dramatically increase capacity for homeless San Diegans who are currently unable to practice social distancing on the streets.

“Because San Diego has a mass sheltering model at the Convention Center with adequate spacing, good services, showers, laundry, restrooms, we are better able to serve a larger number in a congregate setting than other communities are,” Cox said.

But Cox said the task force and the city and county have been continuing to work on more clear protocols for homeless San Diegans referred by service providers or coming off the street to be screened and potentially linked with motel rooms or shelter beds at the Convention Center.

As homeless advocates wait, some have taken it upon themselves to aid vulnerable homeless San Diegans the county and the Task Force have yet to help.

Activists Amie Zamudio and Tasha Williamson are now raising money to move some homeless San Diegans into motels themselves.

“We have a lot of elders, people with disabilities, people with compromised immune systems, families with babies who are being left out and forgotten,” Zamudio wrote on a fundraising page she set up Monday. “We cannot just sit and wait.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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