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Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged county and city officials to provide shelter for homeless individuals during the coronavirus pandemic, yet a program providing hotel rooms to homeless residents in Encinitas released more than 50 unsheltered households onto the city’s streets over the weekend, inciting further uncertainty and frustration among the city’s homeless population.
Before Newsom’s announcement, the city of Encinitas on March 20 entered into an agreement with local nonprofit Community Resource Center to house up to 80 unsheltered households in motels. On April 22, when the first batch of vouchers neared their expiration dates and the state released a more prescribed list of hotel room eligibility, the Encinitas City Council said it would only provide enough funds to extend vouchers for up to 22 households until May 15 – just enough to meet the needs of at-risk homeless individuals as defined by the state.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Community Resource Center CEO John Van Cleef agree on at least one thing: Hotels are not a permanent solution to homelessness. They’re wrestling with how to balance that sentiment with the governor’s direction to keep certain at-risk homeless individuals in hotel rooms during the pandemic. Blakespear says there just isn’t enough funding at the city level to provide additional hotel vouchers. Van Cleef, meanwhile, says his nonprofit isn’t worried about funding – he simply doesn’t think people should remain in hotels unless they meet certain state and federal criteria because he doesn’t believe hotels are an appropriate tool for addressing homelessness, and believes his group’s funding would be better spent on other priorities.
Meanwhile, many homeless individuals in Encinitas have already returned or will soon return to their prior living situations on the streets or in their cars, leaving them at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
On March 20, Encinitas began a motel voucher program to provide temporary emergency shelter for up to 80 homeless households for two weeks. Community Resource Center was tasked with running the program, which the City Council later extended to the end of April.
Since the city has not received any funds from the state or federal governments for the program, it’s used city general operating money to bankroll it, said Jennifer Gates, a principal planner for the city of Encinitas.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear wrote in a newsletter on April 18 the city was continuing to provide money to Community Resource Center for motel vouchers during the stay-at-home orders, and that 75 vouchers had been used.
“We need to find better solutions for those experiencing homelessness than a motel room, but for this moment it’s better than nothing,” she wrote.
Four days later, the Council cut the number of available vouchers to 22 rooms but extended their availability to May 15. The remaining vouchers would be reserved for individuals who were already in the program and considered “high-risk” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, such as people over 65 or who have underlying health conditions, said Pat Piatt, a senior management analyst at the city manager’s office, even though the funds weren’t coming from FEMA and didn’t require those restrictions.
That means most of the people who’d been sheltered using the hotel vouchers are being abruptly forced to return to the streets or their cars. But many of the homeless residents using the vouchers told VOSD that wasn’t their only issue – and that their experience in the hotel rooms had been frustrating and demoralizing as they struggled to access food and other resources.
Many said the confusion surrounding the length of time they had in hotel rooms and the uncertainty of being shifted from one hotel to another without notice significantly raised their stress levels and made their health conditions worse. Many said they were initially grateful for the hotel rooms but were jolted by the lack of resources and non-expired, healthy food available to them in the hotels. Others said Community Resource Center provided them with no transportation to move their belongings into the hotel room or get to the nonprofit’s food pantry, scarce amounts of food that aligned with their dietary needs and virtually no medical or other assistance until this week – four weeks into their stay. Many said they feared the nonprofit would retaliate against them for speaking out.
Community Resource Center’s CEO acknowledged people were moved on short notice, but said it was to comply with a California law that says anyone who stays in a hotel room for more than 30 days becomes a tenant. He did not dispute some voucher-holders’ complaints that they were served expired food from the nonprofit’s food pantry, but said those complaints weren’t appropriate because food pantries are able to distribute food at different sell-by dates than FDA guidelines.
Mike Cartwright is one of more than 50 individuals whose hotel voucher expired over the weekend. He moved back onto the streets this week.
Cartwright said he’s frustrated because Community Resource Center knew the virus wasn’t going to last just a few weeks. He said he wonders why he and everyone else is getting kicked out while other homeless individuals in the state are still being housed.
“It’s kind of strange because we’re locked down and I can’t go anywhere really now and I never ask for help,” he said. “I definitely would take their help and it would be nice to have something.”
Kathleen Brown, 70, is still in one of the hotel rooms in Encinitas and said Community Resource Center was unhelpful in getting her access to food and gas cards for transportation needs last week. She also said she had been left in the dark about what will happen when her hotel voucher runs out.
“No one has come to check on me. It’s very isolating; I’m alone and lonely and some nights I’m afraid – it’s kind of like PTSD or a panic attack. I’ve been in a hotel room by myself and I don’t know where I’ll go at all after this,” she said on April 20. “It’s not bad enough that I’m homeless. I’m being jerked around by people who are supposed to be helping us and are making us feeling desperate.”
Another man utilizing a hotel voucher who declined to provide his name on the record because he feared retribution from Community Resource Center said he’s been given conflicting information about whether his voucher will be extended. He said he went the entire weekend without anyone bringing food to his hotel room, and he can’t walk the mile from the hotel to the nonprofit’s food pantry because of a broken foot.
“I can’t get no transportation; can’t even get good food delivered here for my low-sodium diet because of diabetes,” he said. He said he got sick from roast beef at the food pantry and is using the little money he has to purchase food.
“I’m really disappointed; no one cares anymore. I feel like I don’t have a right to be treated with dignity and respect … I’m feeling like I’m stuck and I just feel like a prisoner here,” he said.
Van Cleef told VOSD he knows exiting the hotels is challenging for homeless individuals, but said the nonprofit is not opting to continue the vouchers for people if they don’t meet federal and state guidelines for homeless residents who should be housed during the pandemic. He said Community Resource Center started to place people in hotels before they had guidelines from FEMA or the county, and it chose to place more than 70 households in hotels following its own screening process to identify “the most vulnerable.” He said once clear guidelines were outlined by the state, his group and the city chose to align with those standards.
“A few people in particular are being very vocal that they can’t believe this is happening to them. They used phrases like ‘my voucher was revoked’ – ‘No, it’s not revoked. We ran out of the ability to do that. Another way to think about that question is, ‘Well, are the things that these folks did or didn’t do while hotel-ed to be in a permanent home?” he said.
Van Cleef said it would be inappropriate for the nonprofit to continue housing people who didn’t meet the guidelines in hotels, and that individuals experiencing homelessness have to want to accept his agency’s available supportive housing resources as part of a permanent housing solution.
“They have to participate in their own life to become housed individuals,” he said. “They are a participant in their own future. … Some of the people housed were thankful and understood it’s temporary thing. Some people thought this would be a permanent thing in whatever thinking process they have and some people said they were going to get working on my life and situation while I have this opportunity.”
Rachael Collins, a former client of the Community Resource Center and social justice advocate, said she has been working with the unsheltered population in Encinitas for six months and was concerned not only that individuals were forced back onto the streets, but that the nonprofit did not help provide its clients staying in hotels with access to healthy and unexpired foods, gas cards, necessary transportation to meals and access to social services that could help improve many of their needs during that time.
“During the pandemic, even the elderly, medically compromised and disabled have had to walk significant distance (sic) to stand in line WITHOUT (sic) masks for up to 2 hours without a bathroom facility, overhead covering or chairs,” she wrote in an email to VOSD. “I suggested to the City Manager’s office multiple times this could have been prevented by distributing grocery cards so recipients could purchase food for their own nutrition needs without traveling or congregating – but it was never done.”
Van Cleef said it’s taken extra bandwidth for the nonprofit to bring case management and delivery services to the hotels, and food delivery distribution just started last week. He said the nonprofit is working to provide health screenings and that everyone in the hotels has had access to the nonprofit’s food pantry.
He said he’s been frustrated by some of the complaints he’d heard but understands this is a stressful time for clients being served by his organization.
“It’s just like one of the challenges in general of the people we work with is we do work with people who are bright and articulate and also have some hidden invisible challenges that are difficult and sad when this stressful time kind of triggers anxiety and how they reach out and what triggers their needs,” he said.
Though both Blakespear and Van Cleef have said they don’t believe hotels are a permanent solution to homelessness, they differ on whether it’s appropriate to continue housing them there during the pandemic.
Blakespear has said it’s a matter of limited city resources; Van Cleef suggested that he objects on principle to housing people in hotel rooms and believes his group’s funding would be better spent on other priorities, like assisting people at risk of falling into homelessness during the crisis.
Blakespear said in an email to VOSD motel vouchers are a “very short-term solution” and the city of Encinitas does not have the resources to indefinitely fund motel vouchers for those without shelter. She said the city has been advocating for some of the state money provided to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless to help shelter homeless individuals in Encinitas.
“As a local leader, I find the situation frustrating,” Blakespear wrote.
She said the city is trying to do its part, but that it’s incumbent on County Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond, who represent North County, and the county’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless to substantively engage in promoting a solution for all of North County.
“However, the fact remains that there are people who are living unsheltered outdoors. We need to have a better solution for these people than what we currently offer,” she wrote.
Piatt, with the city manager’s office, said city staff is working to identify alternatives to the existing program for high-risk homeless individuals through May 15 with the county and “other programs.”
Community Resource Center has raised more than $525,000 in four weeks since March 20 from donors and is looking to raise a total of $1 million for economic support and relief for people during the coronavirus, Van Cleef said.
Van Cleef said instead, the nonprofit is saving the funds to assist people who may face long-term financial repercussions from layoffs. He said the nonprofit has spent about $250,000 of the money raised so far to hire a new case manager to keep up with the increased workload and other needs, including $30,000 for food for the next three months, $25,000 toward flex funds like gas cards, grocery cards and bus passes and transportation and about $38,000 to $40,000 sheltering people.
“So we’re taking a very careful look at what’s happening today and this week and the economic impact of COVID-19 including the people we’ve served as well as haven’t served,” he said. “We’re deeply concerned about what’s going to be happening in the next three months as people have not been able to pay rent and are taking advantage of a moratorium on evictions. That’s going to be a lot of people in the service industry like retail and restaurants. We’re saving some of that money to have some of that assistance so we don’t have a new breadth of homeless in the community.”