by Kimberly Rivers
We are living through a historical moment. How will the response of our local leaders and public agencies be judged from a future vantage point? Did we do all we could to help those who need it the most.
“No one stands taller than those leaders that bend down on one knee to help lift other people up,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 18, 2020 during a live press conference introducing California’s implementation of the Project Room Key program to house those most vulnerable to contracting and becoming ill from the coronavirus among the homeless population of Ventura County. “Consider the moment we’re in and the ethical question you’re being called and asked upon. Consider your station in life and in history. All of us will be judged. Homeless individuals are members of our community…and I hope we’ll consider their lot and their future as well.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has not created the homeless crisis, it has surely amplified it and has compelled officials at the state and local levels to provide a remedy, both immediate and longer lasting.
In the Jan. 29, 2020 Ventura County Homeless Point in Time count 1,743 adults and children were identified. This was a 4.4 percent increase over the 2019 count. Of those people, 34.5 percent of them, about 430 people reported having chronic health conditions which could make them more vulnerable to serious illness or death to the coronavirus and COVID-19.
Called Project Room Key in California, Newsom set a high goal of housing the most vulnerable 15,000 homeless people quickly, mostly at hotels and motels across the state.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized reimbursement funding, administered through state governments, to counties and cities for housing the homeless, specifically those who are most vulnerable to the virus. Per those guidelines the most vulnerable include those who test positive for the virus that do not require hospitalization not need isolation or quarantine, individuals who have confirmed exposure to the virus and people who are high risk, but asymptomatic, including those over 65 with particular underlying chronic illness.
“We had over 350 in Project Roomkey over a 3 month period. We had 350 rooms for the high-risk population,” said Tara Carruth, with the Ventura County CEO’s office who manages Homeless Grants, Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) and Continuum of Care. The Vagabond hotel locations in Oxnard and Ventura, the Motel 6 in Newbury Park and the Best Western in Ventura were the hotels participating in Project Roomkey. “There were other rooms secured for medical sheltering of COVID and exposed patients (housed and unhoused persons).”
Those housed in motels and hotel were identified through community service providers.
“Many people left the project during various times, some for successful placements and others because they chose to leave or they were asked to leave because they violated safety rules during their stay.”
When the program ended “there was a cohort of persons without a room…The motel sites were closing and we did not yet have a voucher program in place.”
“At the conclusion of Project Roomkey operations, there were 55 remaining in the program because of their vulnerability,” and “there was a cohort of persons without a room” because “the motel sites were closing and we did not yet have a voucher program in place.”
She said that “over 160 people were successfully discharged” from Project Room Key “to temporary or permanent placements,” when the project ended on June 30, 2020. Those placements include permanent housing, connection with family, emergency shelters, sober living homes, skilled nursing facilities, and board and care facilities.
Carruth said the county’s Roomkey program ended then “because our leases with three motels ended in early July and the county had to clean and return the property in the condition we found it.” She also pointed to funding allocations ending and the county finding “out that it was renewed on July 3rd for the month of July.”
A letter from FEMA to the state of California dated June 1 informed the state of the availability of funding extensions past June 30, which would “require submittal of current re-assessments from the public health official and up to date information.” (1)
A second FEMA letter to the state dated July 1, 2020, announced the extension of funding for emergency housing for those most vulnerable through July 30, 2020.
Carruth offered a third reason the program wasn’t extended, “We could not extend Project Roomkey how it is was originally established because the motels would not extend the leases with the County.”
The hotels did not respond by press deadline to inquiries seeking confirmation about them not wanting to continue leasing to the county.
Other funding received by the county related to housing the homeless in response to COVID was reported by the California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council in a March 19, 2020 report stating that Ventura County received $299,245 and that Oxnard/San Buenaventura/Ventura County Continuum of Care received another $325,257 in COVID19 Emergency Homelessness Funding Grant Allocations. That funding is based on the 2019 Point in Time counts. (3)
Motel Voucher program
On July 28 the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved $3 million in funding to be allocated for a motel voucher program to house 130 people through December 31, 2020. Staff reported they expect most of that cost to be reimbursed by FEMA.
“This includes the 55 that stayed over in motels,” said Carruth. “We have issued 67 vouchers as of right now. Those vouchers are in use. Vouchers can only be used at motels that have a signed agreement with the County.”
Hotels participating in the county’s voucher program include the Ventura Vagabond, Oxnard Vagabond, and Thousand Oaks Premier Inn. Carruth said the county is “still working on securing a Simi Valley motel.” The goal is “to keep residents near their home community.”
Carruth explained that “each client is case managed by their service provider who is providing connections to resources to meet their basic needs. FoodShare is also providing food resources specifically for people without kitchens.”
Services will continue to be provided to these individuals by county agencies and nonprofit organizations during the voucher program’s duration. County CEO staff will administer the motel voucher program.
The vouchers are being distributed through a referral process with countywide homeless service providers. The priority for these referrals are for persons who were served by Project Roomkey, met the high-risk criteria and did not have safe placement. The referring agencies are committing to supporting clients in these placements including assisting with ensuring basic needs are met (food, laundry, etc) and continuing to work on a permanent housing plan for these clients.
The program does require participants to sign an agreement with rules and expectations including participating with their designated service provider to develop longer term housing plan.
Carruth explained “the referring agencies (County and nonprofit agencies) are providing support services to their clients receiving motel vouchers.” Services provided include “support in meeting basic needs (food, laundry, etc) as well as behavioral and health services and continued work on a housing plan.”
FEMA funding rules restrict monies from being used for some behavioral health services like case management and counseling, while it can be used for certain “wrap around services” that are necessary for operating sites to house individuals. Administrative costs are specifically called out as not covered. The funding rules state, “Grantees are encouraged to leverage their existing programs and administrative capacity to push these dollars towards the most impactful services currently available.”
In addition, all programs using COVID-19 Emergency funding through the state must comply with Housing First policies aimed at reducing barriers to housing the homeless such as treatment preconditions for substance use, behavioral contingencies. Emergency housing should not be “contingent of participation” in services.
On July 28 the VEntura County Board of Supervisors approved Mercy House as the designated developer to implement Project Home Key in the County, if the county is approved by the state. This project, a continuation of Project Roomkey, aims to convert existing structures like motels into permanent housing for those highly vulnerable in the homeless community.
The county had released a public Request for Qualifications seeking interested organizations to apply to partner with the county. (2)
“We had two responses and both were solid proposals. We had an evaluation committee that included County, [Continuum of Care] and city representation,” said Carruth. That committee recommended Mercy House be selected. “The State’s NOFA for Homekey requires some local match funding and other hurdles we have to overcome to be competitive for these resources.” In addition the federal funds have to be spent by December 30, 2020.
The Supervisors approved a county commitment of up to $504,000 each year for three years that will come from the County’s Permanent Local Housing Allocation for Capital Development of Rental Housing to the proposed Motel Conversion Project for the Homekey program.
This program includes $600 million administered by the state’s California Department of Housing and Community Development. Counties, cities and other local entities like housing authorities can apply for the funds to purchase and rehabilitate housing, including motels, vacant apartment building and other buildings to convert or other renovate them into permanent long-term housing.
Most of that funding is from the State’s allocations of federal Coronavirus Aid Relief Funds (CRF), with $50 million coming from the state’s own general fund. CRF funds must be spent by Dec. 30, 2020 and escrow on any property acquired in the program must close by Dec. 30 as well. Funding received through the State General Fund must be spent by June 30, 2022. (3)