County begins to wind down its COVID hotel program for at-risk homeless residents

A federally funded program that provides hotel rooms to residents at high risk of severe COVID-19 illness will come to an end in a little more than one month, leaving 132 homeless residents looking for permanent homes.

Currently living in two hotels under contract with the county housing department, the hotel residents started receiving letters from the county health department Thursday, notifying each that transitions to more-permanent housing should be complete by March 20.

David Estrella, director of housing and community development services for San Diego County, said Thursday afternoon that Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the program, and another much larger operation that provides hotel rooms for those isolating after infection or exposure, ends April 1.

The executive said he is confident that current at-risk residents, some who have remained in hotel rooms for “many, many, many months,” will be able to find permanent housing in the community, though the decision about whether or not to return to the streets ultimately rests with each individual.

Some, he said, are among those now moving into new units at the newly opened Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa run by Father Joe’s Villages in downtown San Diego. About 89 of the 132, he added, have been approved for federal housing vouchers that require recipients to contribute one-third of their income to rent but pay the balance directly to property owners.

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who often is critical of city and county actions regarding homelessness, said he was disappointed to hear about the end of what he considered a successful program.

“I think overall it really helped a lot of people,” he said. “I’m sad that they would let it end. All these people are dying on the street. Why wouldn’t they continue it?”

Estrella said that the county has spent $85 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the at-risk program and a much-larger Public Health Hotel Program that also uses hotels to provide short-term space for individuals and families to isolate and avoid infecting others in their households.

That funding, the executive said, runs out April 1.

Amie Zamudio and Joanne Standlee, who run Housing 4 the Homeless, also were disappointed.

“I am extremely upset about it,” said Zamudio, who created the program Hotel Vouchers for All in March 2020 to place people on the street into homeless rooms.

Zamudio said she stopped her programs when the county started its own in 2020, but resumed it in March 2021 when the county stopped intakes to the program.

After learning the program was ending for good next month, she and Standlee are contracting with another hotel to provide vouchers to temporarily get people off the street.

Standlee said the county hotel program has been the most successful effort she has ever seen in helping homeless people because it provides a place where they can heal and get in touch with help that could lead to housing and other solutions for issues they face.

Steven Roberts, who had been living in a vehicle with his wife, entered the county’s hotel voucher program for people with COVID-19 last year. After recovering, the couple transferred to the county program run at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Old Town, where they have lived since March 2021.

“They haven’t told us nothing,” he said after being told notices were being sent to residents. “There’s been a rumor, but we’ve never heard it from the horse’s mouth that the funding was ending.”

Roberts said that after waiting for almost a year to be placed in permanent housing, he is not optimistic that the voucher program is going to be any more successful.

Estrella said that finding permanent residences for those still living in hotels requires assistance from local property owners.

The key, Estrella said, is for owners of local rental properties to come forward and agree to participate in the program, which is currently offering a $500 one-time incentive to those who make a unit available.

“Without those owners participating, it is incredibly difficult to pair someone with stable housing,” Estrella said.

To date, he said, the at-risk part of the larger hotel program has served 207 residents experiencing homelessness. Seventy-seven have already found permanent housing in the community.

But the at-risk side of the house is dwarfed by a parallel operation that offers short-term hotel stays to people who test positive or have been recently exposed to the virus and need to quarantine away from others who live at their residence, whether that residence is a single-family home or a homeless shelter.

According to the county, the Public Health Hotel Program has served 15,240 people since it started in March 2020.

Currently two hotels, which the county does not identify to the public, have 137 rooms available for short-term stays of about one week; 35 of those rooms were occupied Thursday. The operation has ebbed and flowed with the pandemic, expanding to five local hotels at its largest.

The county said that about 4,500 of those who have stayed in quarantine hotel rooms have been people experiencing homelessness but who did not have the severe medical risk factors that would have qualified them for the much-smaller at-risk program that is shutting down next month .

An additional 6,329 were asylum seekers referred for temporary lodging by the federal government after they tested positive or were exposed after crossing the border. Hotel rooms for asylum seekers, officials said, ended when the federal government began running its own shelters.

Since March 2020, the county has spent about $85 million in FEMA funds to run the hotel program, and Dr. Denise Foster, the county’s chief nursing officer.

The resource has been especially important in helping local hospitals free up scarce bed space during successive coronavirus surges. Officials said that hotel rooms were recently so full of discharged Omicron patients that rooms were temporarily unavailable for use by homeless residents to quarantine. Overall, for the length of the hotel program, Foster said that about 2,600 newly discharged hospital patients have stayed in hotel rooms.

Exactly what to do with the short-term hotel isolation program after FEMA funding runs out in April, Foster said, is still under discussion.

“We don’t have any details on that yet,” Foster said.

Though it has always used hotels to help those with infectious diseases avoid infecting others in their households or communities, the scale of the operation over the last two years has been unprecedented with county and contracted workers providing hotel guests a wide range of services.

Those included daily wellness checks by registered nurses, access to mental health services, delivery of over-the-counter medications, delivery of meals and snacks, laundry service, cable television and Wifi Internet service and access to “navigators” who could assist in finding help with housing or health care needs. Even pet food and pet walking are available if needed.

There is no arguing, Foster added, that the operation saved lives by keeping individuals or even whole families with active coronavirus infections away from those in their social orbits who would have suffered greatly if they picked up the virus.

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