California was the first state in the nation to use FEMA funding to provide housing in the form of hotel rooms and trailers, providing isolation space for tens of thousands of people experiencing homelessness, in order to protect them and the larger population from COVID-19 exposure. As of mid November, close to 13,000 “shelter nights” of isolation have been used in Humboldt County to temporarily shelter unhoused people who were exposed to the novel coronavirus, thanks to Project Roomkey.
Governor Gavin Newsom announced earlier this month that supplemental one-time funding of 62 million dollars would be made available to keep Project Roomkey alive, for now. With collaboration making the project possible, the state contracted with Motel 6 and others early on, in order to isolate the unhoused in the time of COVID.
On November 16th, Newsom stated in a press release,
Project Roomkey exceeded all expectations, providing safe shelter to more than 22,300 Californians experiencing homelessness,” said Governor Newsom. “But this pandemic is very much still with us – and we can’t take our eye off the ball. That’s why we’re supporting our counties with this new money, so they can continue this critical life-saving Roomkey mission and help clients transition into more stable, permanent housing. At the end of the day, our top objective for this new funding is keeping everyone – including people experiencing homelessness – safe from COVID-19.
Currently counting more positive cases than they can effectively trace, Humboldt County and indeed jurisdictions across the State and the nation are facing down a third wave that is fast becoming a surge. The community transmission of COVID-19 has increased recently across California, and the changing weather brings additional complications for the local homeless population, especially in the context of a pandemic ramping up into its anticipated winter surge.
It turns out, Humboldt County benefited greatly from the Project Roomkey program, receiving at least two disbursements from the State, one allocation totalling $331,688.67 and the other at $305,162.44 in March, following the Governor’s Executive Order. Both Humboldt County, as well as the Hoopa Valley Tribe, received money to support hotel room purchases via Project Roomkey, as of June. With a local spike in cases bringing Humboldt into the state’s most restrictive ‘purple tier’, county health officials are urging locals to heed the state’s advisories or face a winter surge that threatens to overwhelm Humboldt’s rural hospitals. As the county’s COVID tally continues to rise at an untenable pace, and having increasing evidence of community transmission in congregate settings, Humboldt County is prioritizing testing, tracing cases, issuing advisories and bracing for impact.
Governor Newsom hit the ground running in mid March with a slate of measures aimed at flattening the first wave of COVID-19 infections, including a first ever housing program aimed at protecting the vulnerable unhoused population of California. The innovative and somewhat lofty goal of housing homeless folks during a pandemic planned to use mostly FEMA dollars, and relying on local jurisdictions to allocate the monies according to local needs.
When COVID-19 erupted into a global pandemic earlier this year, community spread of the virus among the unhoused population became a very pressing concern for CDPH and county officials across the board. The governor’s response was to initiate Project Roomkey, which was structured to provide safe accommodations for people who were experiencing homelessness and had also been exposed to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Christine Messinger, Humboldt County Public Education Officer at DHHS Communications confirmed for the Redheaded Blackbelt that indeed, California’s Project Roomkey has made an impact on the COVID-19 landscape locally. Without the program, many unhoused community members would be generally left to address their healthcare needs in the midst of a pandemic, without the benefit of secure shelter or observation by healthcare professionals.
Humboldt County has been able to take advantage of the program, and will continue to utilize the relief offered by the expanded funding, according to Messinger who confirmed via email that Humboldt County utilized the Program effectively. She told us,
Through Project Roomkey funding, so far there have been nearly 13,000 shelter nights provided in Eureka, Arcata and Southern Humboldt to people experiencing homelessness. We haven’t yet received the details on this extended funding, but we look forward to continuing to work with our partners to keep people safe during the pandemic.
Humboldt’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Teresa Frankovich stated Tuesday in a Media Availability that the local homeless population has been somewhat difficult to monitor, but surprisingly, has not presented an outbreak of infection in Humboldt as of yet. We asked Dr. Frankovich for an update on testing in the local homeless population, and if the recent spike in cases has been reflected in that community. She stated,
I would say that getting really robust testing in the homeless community is an ongoing challenge for us, but one that we are certainly working on at this time. We have not detected any outbreaks among the homeless population in our community, and we have not seen a dramatic case rate increase in that population, that you know, that- that we have seen in the overall population at this time.
So, it’s a situation where we need ongoing monitoring of course, and also it’s just interesting that the it’s not quite clear why we are not seeing as much activity right there, and perhaps there is some protective factor for individuals who are essentially living outdoors where we know there’s a little less risk of transmission, but we’ll continue to monitor.
Project Roomkey was developed to address potential community transmission of the highly contagious virus among this at-risk group of Californians, not only as a preventative measure, but as a disease control measure. A press release from April 3rd outlined which at-risk individuals would be the focus of the project:
To provide safer options during the COVID-19 pandemic, Project Roomkey isolation units serve three critical public health purposes:
- Prioritize individuals experiencing homelessness who are asymptomatic, but are at high risk, such as people over 65 or who have certain underlying health conditions, and move them into motel or hotel units where they can more safely self-isolate.
- Provide isolation capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness who have been exposed to COVID-19 (as documented by a state or local public health official, or medical health professional) that do not require hospitalization, but need isolation or quarantine; and
- Provide isolation capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness who are COVID-19 positive, but who don’t need hospitalization. Without these isolation units, their only choice is to return to a congregate shelter setting or back to an encampment – both of which would lead to further spread of COVID-19.
The local governments are responsible for identifying which shelter clients or encampment residents are selected for these hotel isolation placements and transporting them to the hotels for intake.
At a press conference on April 3rd, the Governor addressed the public, and introduced the collaborative project from the site of a prospective Project Roomkey hotel in the northern Bay Area. “Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,” Said Governor Newsom. The governor assured Californians that every hotel/motel used in Project Roomkey would also offer essential wraparound services, including custodial, laundry, security and support staff.
The Governor’s novel approach to controlling community spread of the infection in the homeless population even included input from the world-renowned Chef José Andrés, although this particular wraparound service was noted as being limited to unhoused folks who were “living in some hotels” as opposed to being available across the state. While this element of the program may have been unavailable across the entire state, it did make for an appealing offer, stating in the press release, “The Governor also announced a partnership with Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, which will provide three meals a day to select Project Roomkey hotels through a statewide contract to support local efforts as needed.”
Governor Gavin Newsom explained,
By helping the most vulnerable homeless individuals off the street and into isolation, California can slow the spread of COVID-19 through homeless populations, lower the number of people infected and protect critical health care resources. We’re working hard with our county partners to get these hotels up and running as rapidly as possible.
In a State-issued Interim Guidance for Homeless Assistance Providers, published on April 27th, distribution protocols were outlined for local jurisdictions, stating in part:
In partnership with local communities, the state is working to identify hotel/motel rooms throughout California that can be made available to individuals or families experiencing homelessness who:
- test positive for COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization,
- have been exposed to COVID-19, or
- are asymptomatic, but are at high-risk of severe illness (people over 65 or who have certain underlying health conditions).
Sharing a live-streamed press conference from a Motel 6 Project Roomkey site, Governor Gavin Newsom updated the public on the success of the venture, noting that Motel 6 entered into a contract for services with the State of California in order to accommodate the Governor’s plan to provide emergency shelter and self isolation assistance due to COVID-19.
In a what is titled as “executive summary,” a letter addressed to all county welfare directors and federally recognized tribal governments, an outline of the program is laid out, in part stating,
Purpose and Goal of Project Roomkey: People experiencing homelessness who are living on the streets and those living in large congregate shelter settings are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Lack of access to sanitation, isolation and quarantine, and health care is compounded by increased risk of exposure and subsequent severe health impacts due the prevalence of comorbidities amongst people experiencing homelessness. According to the CDC, people age 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions are particularly susceptible to serious health impacts as a result of the virus, including death. Additionally, people who lack stable housing are more likely to use the emergency department of a hospital. Patients who are experiencing homelessness are admitted to inpatient units five times more often and on average, stay longer than people not experiencing homelessness.
The purpose of Project Roomkey is to provide non-congregate shelter options for people experiencing homelessness, protect human life, and minimize strain on health care system capacity.
‘How do they pay for it,’ you ask? The funding was sourced mainly from two main areas, with $100,000,000.– from FEMA, and another $50,000,000.– from the California State Department of Social Services to purchase trailers, according to a letter from the department of Finance, also dated March 18th, coinciding with Newsom’s Executive Orders related to COVID-19, Project Roomkey included.
According to the Executive Order signed by CA Governor Newsom on March 18, 2020, the hotel rooms or trailers would only be available for unhoused community members who were also exposed to COVID-19 or had a confirmed positive COVID-19 test result. With CA Senate Bill (SB) 89, (Chapter 2, Statutes of 2020), Section 36, the State of California “augmented the 2019 Budget Act, making $150 million in state general fund available to support state and local governments (including counties and tribes), and protect the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in response to COVID 19.”
As reflected in this letter from the California Department of Finance, but also clearly laid out in the Project Roomkey Fact Sheet, Governor Newsom directed the first batch of the $500 million in emergency funding recently authorized by the Legislature for COVID-19 related activities, which specified the $150 million for local emergency homelessness actions. More specifically, the state allocated $100 million directly to local governments for shelter support and emergency housing to address COVID-19 among the homeless population, and another $50 million for local governments to purchase travel trailers, lease rooms in hotels, and access other facilities “in partnership with counties and cities to provide immediate isolation placements throughout the state for homeless individuals.”
The Governor’s recent announcement that the project would be bolstered by additional one-time funding, allocated to these three separate areas:
The $62 million will come from the Disaster Response Emergency Operations Account (DREOA) and will be provided by the Department of Social Services to counties implementing Project Roomkey on a formula basis, to be used as follows:
- Project Roomkey Operations – $24 million to support continued Project Roomkey operations while local communities develop re-housing plans so that no one is forced to leave a Project Roomkey unit and become unsheltered.
- Rehousing – $35 million to develop and implement plans to transition individuals from Project Roomkey into permanent housing. This money can be used for rental subsidies, case management, housing navigation and landlord incentives, among other things.
- Technical Assistance – $3 million to contract with experienced housing providers to deploy housing specialists and provide intensive technical assistance to communities to help them create plans for permanent re-housing of all Project Roomkey occupants.
Most of the Project Roomkey expenses are federally reimbursable under FEMA, for both hotel/motel room occupancy agreements and operating services- at 75% federal share of costs, leaving 25% of the financial burden to the county. This reimbursement is not a given, and does require documentation, according to FEMA’s process.
A FEMA approval letter of March 27th by Robert J. Fenton, Regional Administrator of FEMA Region IX, describes the populations that are eligible for reimbursement after accessing the project funds, and the information that must be collected for each individual participating in Project Roomkey.
In part, the FEMA Regional Administrator’s March 27th letter of approval states,
FEMA will reimburse Emergency NCS costs incurred for: Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 that do not require hospitalization, but need isolation or quarantine (including those exiting from hospitals); Individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 (as documented by a state or local public health official, or medical health professional) that do not require hospitalization, but need isolation or quarantine; and Individuals who are asymptomatic, but are at “high-risk,” such as people over 65 or who have certain underlying health conditions (respiratory, compromised immunities, chronic disease), and who require Emergency NCS (non-congregate sheltering) as a social distancing measure.
Each request by an agency is required to meet certain criteria according to FEMA, in order to qualify for reimbursement. Noting that unsubstantiated claims would not be fulfilled, the letter notes that, “as with any activity, lack of sufficient support documentation may result in FEMA determining that some or all of the State’s claimed costs are ineligible.” Echoing this potential hurdle to being compensated fully, the Project Roomkey Fact Sheet also states “Some individuals may not qualify for FEMA reimbursement based on the eligibility criteria established by local program design and locally established eligibility criteria.”
In a more recent letter dated October 30th, an applicant for renewal of funding is reminded by FEMA COVID-19 Director Pesapane that certain criteria must be met in order to be reimbursed at the 75% rate. According to Robert M. Pesapane, who is the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer and COVID 19 Director, Recovery Division FEMA, Region IX, Project Roomkey cost reimbursement is contingent on certain proovable circumstances.
FEMA COVID-19 Director Pesapane stated,
As stated in our prior letters, this approval does not include assistance for people experiencing homelessness or living in group housing (whose living situation may make them unable to adhere to social distancing impossible) unless one or more of the three requirements above are also met.
Now, the project is looking to evolve, with one-time funding of 62 million that aims to allow Project Roomkey operations to continue, and even transition to permanent housing. In addition to directing funding to specific Project Roomkey turned Project Homekey locations in order to secure long-term housing, local governments will be offered resources to place Project Roomkey clients into Section 8 apartments where they live locally.
For more information about Project Roomkey, you can contact the CDSS Housing and Homelessness Branch at [email protected] . Additional documents and information are also accessible at https://cdss.ca.gov/inforesources/cdss-programs/housing-programs/project-roomkey .