By David M. Greenwald
The Davis City Council will be asked tonight to evaluate and extend the Respite Center for another year. I see no reason not to continue the Respite Center—while I think the data analysis by the city could be more than it is, there really does not seem like any evidence to pull the project.
At the same time, we need to recognize that the Respite Center should always be some sort of a temporary solution. It gives people a place to go during the day—a place to rest, to shower, to access the internet, to get off the street. But we need to be thinking in terms of long-term shelter or, better yet, housing.
That gets me to Project Roomkey. Last April, Governor Gavin Newsom was able to secure FEMA approval and funding “to provide safe isolation capacity for tens of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in California in order to protect them and the state from COVID-19.”
Through their initial funding, they had a goal of securing up to 15,000 rooms—much of it hotel and motel rooms that were going unused due to COVID, to get “homeless individuals most vulnerable to COVID-19 off the street, out of shelters, and into isolation.”
Davis, the staff report reports, “has had 39 hotel rooms as part of the program for people who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 and 12 rooms for people who need to isolate or quarantine due to positive COVID-19 test results, and many of the participants were identified through the Respite Center.”
The staff report notes that the center has referred over 100 of the most medically vulnerable individuals to Project Roomkey.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on December 20 that the project has been extended indefinitely.
In December Newsom wrote that FEMA “authorized reimbursement for this life-saving mission through the duration of the COVID-19 emergency,” and that this provided “greater stability to cities and counties as they work to transition hotel residents into permanent housing.
“This action serves as acknowledgment of the importance of efforts like Project Roomkey in protecting the most vulnerable Californians and validates all your efforts to implement this first-in-the-nation program,” Newsom said.
The Chronicle reports to date that the state has spent “$512 million to help local governments cover the remaining 25% of Project Roomkey costs.”
Of the 15,133 rooms rented, about two-thirds are occupied—about 13,441 according to the Chronicle. “The rest are largely reserved in case hospitals are overwhelmed and need to move COVID-19 patients, the governor’s office said.”
Unfortunately this 13,441 figure represents just over one-tenth of those who are unsheltered, estimated at about 108,000 at the most recent count in 2019. And there are fears that the pandemic will ultimately add to that total.
Project Roomkey hasn’t been an overwhelming success. The LA Magazine reported in September that LA has only reached one-quarter of its 15,000 room goal and they found that four hotels—Doubletree, Omni, Sheraton, and Miyako—either stated no reason for not participating, or “expressed concerns about impact on the brand.”
“A lack of enthusiasm is not the only reason Project Roomkey fell short of its goals, some say,” the publication reports.
“The broader issue that this helps inform is, why hasn’t Project Roomkey been more successful?” Councilmember Bonin said of the report. “Is it unwillingness on the part of the hotels? … Too much bureaucracy? Too many rules? And honestly, it sounds like all of the above.”
But those issues aside, I think the city needs to look at Project Roomkey as a sort of pilot project. Specifically they need to ask several things, like how willing is the population participating in receiving shelter? What percentage of the population can they take off the streets?
One thing I have noticed, still working every day in downtown, you still see people combing through garbage in the alley, but you no longer see people sleeping on the streets.
Long-term hotel and motel rooms are not the answer to the homeless problem, but creating permanent shelter could, and providing housing for people living on the streets is perhaps optimal. If we do that, will there be problems? Did hotels and motels suffer from collateral problems (or were some simply unwilling to participate)?
There is a lot of data to be gleaned from this and, while the Respite Center is nice, permanent and permanent supportive housing should be the ultimate goal.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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