Updated April 16
Sacramento County plans to potentially close three motels this spring that have sheltered hundreds of formerly homeless residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing concerns over cost, county officials confirmed on Friday.
The plans to close the motels, which are part of the state’s relatively successful Project Roomkey, are sparking concern that many of those who benefitted will end up back on the street. As of April 10, 468 previously unhoused people remained in motel rooms in the county.
“It’s going to be tragic,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition To End Homelessness. “We’re trying to get a handle on why the county is doing this.”
Earlier this week, Janna Haynes, a county spokesperson, said officials were not prepared this week to discuss the plans publicly.
On Friday, Julie Field, the county’s homeless services program manager, said officials never expected Roomkey would be permanent and noted there are less expensive options for sheltering people. She cited motel vouchers as one option, though those don’t include wrap-around services.
Roomkey motel rooms cost $4,000 per month, including security, food and other services, she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in December that the federal government had authorized reimbursements for the program throughout the pandemic.
But Field said the county initially received reimbursements for only 43% of its Roomkey costs, despite expecting a much higher percentage.
“For an emergency response, it all made a lot of sense,” Field said of Project Roomkey. “But as a response to homelessness, and a response to sheltering, it’s not the most cost-effective model.”
Even so, she said: “As long as we can find the funding to continue on, we will do so.” Field added that initial plans called for closing one motel at the end of April, one at the end of May and the third at the end of June.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg both said on Friday it’s too early to close the motels.
Serna called the plans “unacceptable.”
“We are still not out of the woods in terms of the pandemic,” he added.
Serna said he’ll recommend at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that the county extend the motel program at least through August, while the county finds a solution.
County officials said they had found permanent housing for 174 of the 1,356 residents who participated in Roomkey. Field said the county plans to move 80 more residents into a new housing project soon.
But given the region’s ongoing homelessness crisis, Steinberg said now was not the time to close the motels.
“Together the city and county need to be adding beds, roofs, and safe spaces, not subtracting,” the mayor added.
Those who work with unhoused people said the prospect of being forced back to the street would be more than some residents can handle.
“For the people in those [motel] rooms, you are panicking. The stress level is through the roof,” said Joe Smith, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, which provides services for homeless residents.
The county has provided motel rooms along with health and dental services to the most vulnerable unhoused residents since last spring through Project Roomkey. Newsom said last month in his State of the State Address the initiative had helped more than 35,000 people in California.
County officials also recently started a new program separate from Roomkey that provides motel vouchers to homeless people before bad weather hits.
Advocates for unhoused people say Roomkey has succeeded in preventing major COVID-19 outbreaks both locally and statewide. But some are worried that efforts to find permanent housing for the motel residents will fall short.
Newsom introduced Project Homekey last fall to help with the transition. That project awarded $800 million to cities and counties to buy motels and hotels, with the goal of creating approximately 6,000 units of housing for homeless individuals.
Sacramento City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela said she believes the county has a responsibility to find transitional housing for the motel residents. In the meantime, she added the city is exploring whether it can help extend the Project Roomkey motel contracts.
“The city is obviously open to as many motel sites as we can get online to serve the need,” she said.
The city of Sacramento has issued hundreds of motel vouchers to unhoused people in recent months. It also opened emergency warming shelters and a city parking garage for homeless individuals after several unhoused people died in a violent January storm. Advocates pushed city officials for years to open the centers regardless of temperature.
Curtis Freeman was a beneficiary of Roomkey. Until last spring, he lived at a crowded tent encampment under a Sacramento freeway, often afraid for his life.
“I can go and lock my doors behind me,” Freeman said outside his motel room at the La Quinta Inn in January. “I ain’t got to worry about nobody coming in. I can lay down and relax.”
Freeman said on Thursday that he was told the motel “might close” to formerly homeless residents in coming weeks. While the closure could affect a lot of people, Freeman said he’s one of the fortunate ones.
“I’m moving into an apartment next week,” he said. “I’m on my way back.”
There are an estimated 5,600 homeless people in Sacramento County, according to the most recent survey from 2019.
Statewide, the homeless population rose by 7% early last year to an estimated 161,548, according to a federal report published last month. That was prior to the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis that spread across California.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information from Sacramento County officials.
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