California's program to put the homeless in hotels going about as well as you'd expect

Back in the beginning of April, California Governor Gavin Newsom launched a new project intended to deal with the potential spread of the novel coronavirus among his state’s burgeoning population of homeless people. Dubbed Project Roomkey, the plan allocated funds to rent thousands of hotel rooms in cities across the state and move the homeless into them in preparation for a transition to more permanent housing. A total of roughly 15,000 rooms wound up being rented. Now, more than a month later, nearly half of those rooms are sitting empty while massive armies of the homeless remain camped out in the streets. (LA Times)

Only about half of the 15,000 hotel and motel rooms that California has leased for mostly homeless people to slow the spread of the coronavirus are now occupied, a review of state records by The Times shows.

More than a month into Gov. Gavin Newsom’s program to get homeless people off the streets, the occupied rooms account for — at most — less than 5% of the 151,000 people who sleep on street corners, under bridges and in emergency shelters across California.

As of Monday, 7,919 hotel rooms had guests and another 7,700 were vacant, according to figures released by Newsom’s office.

I can’t entirely fault Newsom on this score because at least he was willing to try something to both stem the tide of homelessness in his state and lessen the impact of the pandemic spreading through vulnerable populations. The fact that he did manage to get nearly 8,000 people under a roof in barely a month is nothing to sneeze at.

Now, with that said, the prospects for this project weren’t exactly spectacular from the start. The first and most pressing issue is the volume of people we’re talking about. It’s estimated that there are more than 150,000 homeless in California at present, and some observers have opined that that’s a lowball number to start with. Even if he had filled all 15,000 hotel rooms, that still leaves a huge number of people on the street and probably doesn’t reduce the density much in terms of slowing the spread of the virus.

Also, those rooms aren’t empty because they’ve run out of homeless people to put in them (obviously). What they don’t have is the staffing to identify the homeless people who are in need, move them into the hotel and then care for them after they have a room. What that speaks to is a basic lack of planning. Like so many grandiose projects we’ve seen around the country during this pandemic, good intentions don’t allow you to move mountains. Newsom allocated all of that taxpayer money to rent all of those rooms without grasping how many people could be made available to complete the project. It’s true that FEMA has committed to reimbursing the state for 75% of the cost of the room rentals, but that only means that everyone’s money was wasted, not just California’s.

To be fair, the news wasn’t entirely bad. Some cities did much better than others. In Los Angeles, home to one of the largest populations of homeless, they’ve reportedly been getting people into rooms on average only three days after the rooms become available. But, of course, there are still far too few rooms to make much of a dent into total homeless population in the City of Angels.

But as I said, at least they tried something. And hopefully, it’s been an educational experience that others can learn from going forward. Neither the homelessness crisis nor the coronavirus is likely to be going away anytime soon. So someone is going to have to figure out something.

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