Since March, the county has put about 1,300 vulnerable homeless San Diegans and others who have or are suspected of having coronavirus in hotel rooms to combat the spread of the disease.
Three months into the program, hotels are reopening to tourists, and county officials are mulling the next phase of one of their most significant and least understood coronavirus initiatives. The hotel program has been fraught with confusion about who can access rooms and how, what’s happening to those who move into them and even among those staying in them about how long they can remain there. One homeless woman even told Voice of San Diego she left a county-operated hotel amid anxiety that she would soon be forced to move out.
While the county has provided regular reports on the number of hotel rooms it’s amassed, less has been known about the experiences of those staying in them for days and weeks at a time, how much the county is spending on the effort and how the program might pivot as the pandemic progresses.
Last month, the county issued a request for proposals in hopes an outside contractor would take over the program starting next month through the end of the year. The request suggests the contract could be extended through 2021 but does not specify how many hotel rooms or guests the contractor should be prepared to serve. The county’s public health department now has access to 1,375 rooms.
A separate arrangement with the Regional Task Force on the Homeless to oversee more than 200 rooms for homeless San Diegans considered particularly vulnerable to coronavirus is set to expire July 31 but could be extended.
The county reports it has spent about $11 million on the hotel rooms and services tied to them, a sum that officials expect will be partly covered by federal emergency funds. It’s unclear how those reimbursements could play out as the pandemic continues.
Meanwhile, the county is looking on as Gov. Gavin Newsom negotiates a final budget with state legislators that could call for using hundreds of millions of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase hotels and motels across the state by the end of the year to convert them into homeless housing.
County Chief Nursing Officer Denise Foster and other officials managing the county’s COVID-19 hotel program said that their next steps are to be determined – and that their decisions in the weeks and months to come will rest heavily on the state of the pandemic.
“I don’t have a definite timeline yet,” Foster said.
What is certain: The county doesn’t plan to back away from the hotels anytime soon, particularly amid speculation about a potential second wave of cases.
“The program is going to need to meet the need of COVID-positive individuals who cannot isolate at home, and so we need to continue to have those available to meet that population,” said County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, co-chair of the county’s coronavirus subcommittee.
This spring, fearing a boom in coronavirus cases and a need for isolation options for people without a safe place to stay, county officials scrambled to cut deals with hotels across the region. They also rushed to line up food deliveries, security and other services needed along with the rooms.
Newsom also unveiled an initiative dubbed Project Roomkey to temporarily shelter thousands of homeless Californians. He announced that FEMA could eventually reimburse cities and counties for 75 percent of their costs to place people who have been exposed to coronavirus and seniors and others with underlying conditions in hotels.
County officials announced they would set aside a few hundred rooms for vulnerable homeless San Diegans. Those rooms were quickly accounted for by homeless service providers and later mostly filled. Some rooms ended up housing 54 families that officials decided needed to be moved out of a city shelter at Golden Hall to allow for social distancing.
But the majority of rooms, overseen by the county public health department and requiring referrals from medical providers, have sat vacant throughout the pandemic, drawing criticism from advocates who question why officials haven’t offered more of them to homeless San Diegans unable to follow coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Many also point to other hotel vacancies during the pandemic. As of Monday, just 53 of the county’s 1,375 public health rooms were filled while 191 of Regional Task Force’s 222 rooms for homeless people were occupied. Eleven of the public health rooms were temporarily housing people considered particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.
The county has said its contracts with local hotels do not require the county to pay for vacant rooms.
Joanne Standlee, who has organized efforts to aid homeless people in San Diego’s coastal communities, said she has been discouraged by the county program’s failure to accommodate many seniors and others with health conditions who remain on the street.
“There’s still tons of people out there who haven’t been served,” Standlee said.
County and Regional Task Force officials acknowledge the county’s hotel program is inadequate to serve the region’s unsheltered population that totaled nearly 4,000 in this January’s point-in-time count. But it wasn’t supposed to. They said their response was meant to prevent and mitigate the spread of coronavirus. They have also said they rushed to amass more public health hotel rooms than they could initially fill in preparation for a surge that never materialized.
“The hotel acquisition, the leasing through the county, was a public health response,” Task Force CEO Tamera Kohler said. “It’s not a homeless response. We need to have the public understand that.”
County officials also say the number of hotel rooms they can offer has been limited by the need to provide services for those staying in them, a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the state.
“We can’t fill up all those hotel rooms with high-risk people without providing supportive services,” said Susan Bower, the county’s health and homelessness administrator.
Interfaith Community Services CEO Greg Anglea, whose nonprofit has provided case management and other services to homeless people staying in 120 county-funded hotel rooms in Escondido and Carlsbad, said the struggle to line up qualified staff has limited the region’s ability to serve more homeless San Diegans.
“We have a hard time finding the individuals who are able to do the work. It’s that simple,” Anglea said. “And to just take someone who’s been on street for decades with multiple disabling conditions and put them in a motel room and expect them to have positive outcome, to be able to do everything without additional support, is not a plan that we’ve found to be effective.”
Now, faced with the possibility that Interfaith could be forced to move out dozens staying in those North County hotel rooms if the Task Force contract ends in July, Anglea said his team is hustling to try to find permanent housing for them.
Kohler said providers serving homeless people staying in Task Force hotels elsewhere in the county are also focused on finding them permanent homes in the weeks to come.
County workers have also grappled with how to respond to the needs of those staying in its rooms.
In April, a homeless person who was in isolation at Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley, one of the hotels being operated by the county, died by suicide. inewsource reported that a county official who has supervised staff at the hotel had previously told colleagues in a March email that she was “pushing and begging and pleading for additional staff” to help with work there and “to provide adequate support to the folks in the hotels.”
About 125 county workers are now assigned to work in and support the temporary lodging program, a count likely to vastly decrease later this summer if the county secures a contractor to manage the effort.
County data shows more than 60 percent of guests who have stayed in the public health rooms since mid-March have been homeless.
But the public health rooms for now prioritize health concerns over efforts to find more permanent housing for homeless people staying there.
That’s led to tension and anxiety for those staying in those hotels who don’t have a home.
Several homeless San Diegans who stayed at Crowne Plaza told VOSD they believed county workers were ill-suited to address their needs and questions, and often provided inconsistent or unclear information about when they would need to move out of the hotel. A few were also rattled by maintenance and management issues at the hotel.
Kathy Reilly-Davis, 51, said she left the hotel late last month amid anxiety that the county would soon force her to move out.
“I couldn’t sit around and wait for it,” Reilly-Davis said. “It was too much.”
During her time at Crowne Plaza, Reilly-Davis said one of her two dogs disappeared when she went to run an errand in late April and left it behind in her room. She has not found the dog. She suspects county workers might have entered the room while she was out. Reilly-Davis said she also experienced maintenance issues, including a broken sliding door that workers failed to fix for two weeks and a murky brown leak that soiled some of her clothes.
Reilly-Davis initially ended up back on the street in Chula Vista. She has since secured a bed at the Convention Center shelter after connecting with a homeless outreach worker.
Christina, a nursing student who lives in her car and requested that VOSD not use her last name, confirmed she also dealt with sewage in her room in April and hurried to move school books and other items to avoid it.
Christina, 40, said she was forced to leave Crowne Plaza on May 16 after missing a coronavirus test that coincided with a school commitment. Days before she left, a county worker had suggested Christina move to the Convention Center, an option she didn’t think would work. She is now sleeping in her car again.
James Robinson, 45, said he repeatedly asked whether county staff who called to check on his potential coronavirus symptoms could provide information about housing resources in the weeks before he was cleared to leave the Mission Valley hotel.
“That’s what’s gonna keep me alive,” Robinson said. “Help me with housing.”
On May 16, Robinson said he was given 90 minutes’ notice that he needed to leave Crowne Plaza after leaving to run an errand. Robinson checked into a Pacific Beach hostel rather than go to the Convention Center shelter, an option he said county employees had urged him to consider.
The county’s May request for proposals from contractors who may take over the hotel program calls for a greater focus on housing placements and referrals.
Foster, the county official helping oversee the hotel program, said the county has already provided behavioral health and housing placement services to those staying in its public health hotels but has bolstered some offerings as needs arise.
“We came into this without a playbook and we’ve had to write the playbook as we went,” Foster said.
Foster said the county and the hotels it contracts with have tried to respond to maintenance issues and concerns of those staying there as quickly as they can, and that the county hopes to approve a contract with an outside group that can maintain the services.
Fletcher acknowledged the hotel program the county rushed assemble has not been without cracks – and that the county is looking to apply lessons learned.
“I will say it is very challenging to run public health rooms where individuals must isolate, especially when it’s (serving) individuals who generally don’t live in that way,” Fletcher said.