Two men staying in county-funded hotel rooms for homeless San Diegans considered especially vulnerable to coronavirus recently lost their temporary homes after being hospitalized for the very health conditions that qualified them for the program.
Destry Whitney, 56, and Shawn Lumley, 52, told Voice of San Diego that they were discharged from local hospitals and expected to return to two Old Town hotels where they had been staying. Instead, Whitney and Lumley said they learned from county contractor Equus Workforce Solutions that they had lost the rooms because they had left for more than 48 hours.
The two men had been staying in one of the 640 rooms the county has amassed for homeless people with an increased risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19, rooms that advocates have urged the county to fill to as the pandemic drags on. The county has 306 additional rooms available for people who have been exposed to COVID-19 or who have tested positive but do not have a safe place to isolate. As of Tuesday, the county reported 63 percent of the county’s rooms were filled.
The county for months operated the hotel program before last summer finalizing a contract with Equus to run the program. The program has been plagued by controversy and confusion about how homeless San Diegans can access the rooms since it began last spring, and county supervisors on Tuesday directed county officials to commission an independent review of the hotel initiative and to report back to the board within 90 days.
The county says its workers and contractors coordinate with hospitals on discharges of homeless San Diegans who had been staying in county-funded hotel rooms and sometimes hold rooms open while those who had been staying in them receive medical care.
But Whitney, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension, lost his hotel room in mid-February after spending more than a week in the hospital.
“The hotel room that’s there for me before I got sick because I was sick is now taken from me because I got sick,” Whitney said.
Then, during an emergency room visit at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla on Monday, Whitney said Scripps staff told him he has about a year left to live but did not offer to link him with shelter, including after he asked to speak with a social worker about his options. Instead, Whitney said he was asked to sign discharge paperwork and then handed documents stating he would return to the streets of Pacific Beach and had “declined community resources,” topics that Whitney said he never discussed with hospital staff.
A state law that went into effect in 2019 required hospitals to establish plans for discharging homeless patients and to get a handle on resources that might keep them from returning to the street, and also to document the locations where homeless patients are set to go after being discharged. Scripps Health and other local hospital groups say they have continued to follow the law despite the state Department of Public Health’s decision to waive enforcement of some parts of it last year.
A Scripps spokesman would not comment on Whitney’s case but said the hospital is committed to the safe discharge of its homeless patients.
“Scripps is highly confident in our processes and our people,” spokesman Steve Carpowich wrote in a statement.
An activist has since put Whitney up in a hotel room.
Lumley, who has recently faced flare-ups of gout that make it difficult for him to stand or walk, is temporarily staying in a nursing facility after being discharged from UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest on Tuesday. He learned after being released that he could not return to the hotel.
“I don’t know where I’m gonna go after this. I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Lumley said Tuesday soon after learning he had lost his hotel room. “I sure can’t go back to the streets. I’m not built for the streets anymore.”
County spokesman Craig Sturak said the county could not comment on the specifics of either of the men’s cases but that the county and its contractors coordinate and communicate directly with hospitals and health care facilities, including on hospital discharges and returns to the hotel.
Sturak said the county-funded hotels maintain a log for guests leaving for essential services to keep nurses informed on why a resident may not be answering his or her phone. He said the county doesn’t begin the process to remove someone from a hotel room until the day after a guest is unaccounted for – and that there can be different protocols for people receiving hospital care.
“In the case of someone going to the hospital, each case is evaluated based on their circumstances and their room may be held for them until they are discharged from the hospital without regard to the number of hours or days,” Sturak wrote in an email to VOSD.
Yet Whitney and Lumley said they both lost their rooms after hospitalizations and that neither the county nor Equus had communicated with them about the status of their rooms prior to their departures from local hospitals.
Homeless advocate Amie Zamudio, who has assisted both men, said she called Equus on the day Whitney was discharged to see if he could get transportation to return to his room. She had been previously told the company was holding the room for him. Zamudio said Equus informed her it would not give Whitney a ride but refused to elaborate. Zamudio said Equus stopped sharing information about Whitney and other guests she had referred to the county program, claiming it had changed its policy.
Whitney later showed up at the hotel and learned he would not be allowed to return to his room.
Since then, Zamudio said, a homeless couple she has helped get into the hotel program also worried last week about the 48-hour policy after a shoulder surgery. The couple took care to ensure they were back in the room soon after the procedure in order to avoid losing it.
Whitney said he had hoped he could hold onto his room before he left the hospital last month.
“He wanted that room so bad,” said Zamudio, who recalled Whitney constantly asking about the status of his hotel room while he was hospitalized.
Whitney said he even cut short his days-long stay at Scripps Memorial in February despite the hospital’s recommendation that he remain there, out of fear he would lose the hotel room. He lost it anyway.
Whitney, who returned to Scripps’ ER two weeks later, said he now wishes he had never left the hospital.