Homeless San Diego Coronavirus
The Comfort Inn in Old Town is one of three San Diego hotels where a county contractor is temporarily housing homeless San Diegans who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

After months of urging from homeless advocates, San Diego County plans to seek full federal emergency fund reimbursement for a hotel program that has temporarily housed hundreds during the pandemic.

Activists argued that the county was leaving money on the table to aid vulnerable San Diegans, a contention that the county has pushed back against. Now the county has decided to go after those federal funds.

Reimbursements could free up other coronavirus aid the county has already received, allowing it to direct those dollars to other aspects of its response or perhaps even allow the county to bolster its hotel program.

But acounty spokesman said Monday it was too soon to assess the impact from any federal reimbursements the county might receive.

Since amassing hundreds of hotel rooms early in the pandemic, the county says the hotel initiative has served more than 4,600 people who either got COVID-19 or were exposed to it and lacked a safe place to isolate. The county also made rooms available to more than 4,200 homeless San Diegans considered particularly vulnerable to the virus. The county spent more than $24.8 million on the program from March 2020 through February.

Allegations of mismanagement and confusion about how homeless San Diegans can access the rooms – and the limited access to them – have plagued the program since it began last spring. Activists also criticized San Diego County’s initial decision not to seek Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements through the Project Roomkey initiative that Gov. Gavin Newsom launched to help counties put up thousands of homeless Californians in hotels.

Under the Trump administration, Project Roomkey linked counties with federal funds that could reimburse them for 75 percent of hotel and some related costs.

The Biden administration revealed in January it would provide 100 percent reimbursement through September, fueling more calls from San Diego activists that the county should seek FEMA funds and expand its hotel program.

Before that change, county spokesman Craig Sturak said last year that the county had opted to use federal CARES Act funds on its hotel initiative. Sturak said at the time that the county did not seek Project Roomkey funding for its hotel rooms because it had started its own initiative by the time the state one rolled out and that its program hadn’t suffered as a result of that decision.

Now, Sturak said, the county plans to seek FEMA funding after all.

“We are hoping it will cover the costs for the hotels and the supportive/ancillary costs that are described under FEMA guidelines,” Sturak wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.

FEMA allows reimbursement for lodging and wraparound services, including security and meals.

Sturak acknowledged CARES Act dollars the county previously eyed for the hotel program could be freed up by the county’s recent decision to seek FEMA reimbursements but said county officials are continuing to evaluate various funding sources along with the state of their pandemic response.

The county’s goal, Sturak wrote, is to ensure it has “the greatest flexibility to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in San Diego County.”

But Sturak said he couldn’t say whether the county would expand the program now that it had decided to seek FEMA funds, something advocates have called for.

“The program is continually being re-evaluated based on the need to protect and prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Sturak wrote.

County officials have also said the number of hotel rooms they can offer has been limited by the need to provide services for those staying in them.

As of early last week, the county reported having 898 hotel rooms available. Of those, 599 were full. Just under 75 percent of county rooms set aside for homeless San Diegans with an increased risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19 were occupied.

Officials elsewhere in the state and across the country have announced plans to wind down similar hotel programs as the outlook of the pandemic improves, drawing concern from homeless advocates.

Sturak said San Diego County has yet to decide how long the program will continue or whether it will extend its agreement with Equus Workforce Solutions, which is now running the program, or how long the program should continue. The contract is for now set to expire June 30 but could be extended through the end of the year.

The county earlier this month commissioned a San Diego State University evaluation of the program following a request from county supervisors. The county’s $140,000 contract with SDSU signed on Monday calls for the county to receive a final report by June 1.

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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