Efforts to house homeless during COVID-19 may lead to long-term housing options
Homeless tents line up near a train crossing at Autumn Parkway near the Guadalupe River. Photo by Kyle Martin.

At-risk homeless Californians are moving into trailers, motels and hotels, where they can isolate under a program Gov. Gavin Newsom said could become a long-term solution in California and a model for other states as COVID-19 spreads.

Counties and cities, including Santa Clara County, have worked with the state to lease more than 7,000 rooms and deploy 1,300 FEMA trailers that California acquired earlier this month for homeless residents, particularly those who are at a high-risk for the virus, Newsom announced Friday. The new shelters are being rolled out quickly, but state and local officials say they could shift the way homelessness is addressed ongoing.

Newsom said Friday he’d support local governments to keep unhoused residents in “non-congregate environments, not only through the COVID-19 crisis, but to the extent we can begin to fashion a long-term strategy where we can continue to utilize these assets that we’re procuring.”

In Santa Clara County, 174 unhoused people have been set up in a “shelter or other housing” where they can isolate, and another 215 will get a place to stay in the coming days, county officials announced Friday. All of the homeless residents confirmed to have the virus have been provided housing, officials said, but did not say exactly what type of housing, or how many had tested positive.

That’s just a portion of the program, which state officials have dubbed “Project Roomkey.

Across the state, officials are aiming to add around 8,000 more hotel and motel rooms to the state’s portfolio in the coming weeks. So far, 869 people have been housed through the program.

State officials are aiming to secure 15,000 rooms across California, a benchmark that will fulfill only the first phase of an effort to protect homeless individuals from the contagious coronavirus that has killed 237 and infected at least 12,026 in the state as of Saturday.

Looking for long-term solutions

But as efforts ramp up, many advocates say the government has not done enough to date. Homeless people have been left to fend for themselves for too long, said Hector Garcia, a leader with Sleeping Bags for the Homeless of Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that delivers supplies to encampments.

Before COVID-19 hit the Bay Area, Garcia worked with 40 to 100 volunteers every other Saturday to distribute food, clothing, tarps, tents and sleeping bags to homeless encampments in the Bay Area.

Now between three and five people drop off supplies, including information about the virus that’s infected at least 1094 and killed 38, including one homeless person in Santa Clara County. Rather than having their usual chats, they stay six feet away when they drop off the supplies.

“We don’t want to risk any of our volunteers,” Garcia said. “We know where the encampments are, we have built long relationships with people on the streets … We are doing it the right way, but if we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it.”

Hector Garcia snaps a photo with fellow Sleeping Bags for the Homeless of Silicon Valley volunteers and leaders Todd Langton and Kelly La before dropping off supplies to encampments on March 27. Image courtesy of Sleeping Bags for the Homeless

But Garcia and others in the group say this work never should have been left to volunteers in the first place.

“Santa Clara is probably the wealthiest county in the country and yet we have a third-world situation out here, with perhaps worse than third-world services going to these people,” said Todd Langton, another leader with the group. “We don’t see where the money is going.”

But there’s hope for tackling California’s intractable homeless crisis. Newsom said the program to help during the coronavirus outbreak could create new long-term resources.

“(Homelessness) was the crisis we needed to address before the COVID-19 crisis, and we’re not walking away from meeting that crisis head on as we move through this process,” he said.

Many of the state agreements for hotels and motels include purchase or extension options, Newsom said, which could allow cities and counties to hold onto those rooms moving forward.

FEMA is paying for 75 percent of the cost of those rooms though a partnership with the state. That money comes with some requirements, like ensuring that every room is first prioritized for at-risk homeless people and those who have the virus.

The state has also set aside 800 million in grants for cities and counties to respond to growing homelessness across the state.

“With $800 million in grants … and 75 percent reimbursement from FEMA, there should be no excuse for us to not begin to scale these operations in the next days and weeks, and it can’t come soon enough,” Newsom said Friday.

The health hazard of homelessness

The coronavirus has cast homelessness in a new light in Santa Clara County where 9,706 people live outdoors, according to the latest count, with most of them in San Jose.

Now, not only is homelessness an equity and humanitarian issue, it’s also a serious community health concern.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese applauded the county’s efforts to shelter homeless residents, but pushed for a formal public health order to better monitor outbreaks among homeless people.

He’s asked for paramedics to visit encampments for regular welfare and health checks.

“Any outbreak of the COVID-19 virus would immediately raise a threat to the broader population and to health care providers and systems already in high demand,” Cortese said in a statement.

And despite how dire the situation is for homeless people and the entire community, there is a silver lining when it comes to how people are now thinking about homelessness, said Peter Miron-Conk, a longtime homelessness advocate who founded Hope Village, a homeless camp that was shut down last year.

“The positive thing is that people are realizing that what has happened up to now for the homeless is not satisfactory and this emphasizes that much more,” Miron-Conk said.

Miron-Conk recently started a new nonprofit called Villages of Hope and wants to work with city officials to find land for new camps where homeless residents can live in 8×8-foot shelters with on-site services such as showers and toilets.

With land and financing in hand, Miron-Conk said he could set up a village of 50 homes within a month.

That new effort comes as local communities and officials are pushing harder than ever to drum up shelters.

FEMA trailers for homeless people in Silicon Valley sit in the east parking lot at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo in south San Jose. Photo by The 111th Group aerial photography

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo last month urged Newsom to make public land available for temporary housing and waive environmental review, permitting rules and some state building codes to build new shelters faster during the outbreak.

Newsom has yet to make a decision on the matter.

“I think we recognize the critical short-term priority is isolating people who have tested positive to ensure we halt the spread of the contagion,” Liccardo said in an interview last week. “But we all recognize there are longer-term uses that can address our additional crisis of homelessness.”

The city’s safe parking locations are now open 24 hours a day and warming shelters that usually open during the coldest months will operate at all times. All other shelters in the city are also operating with new protocols for social distancing.

Parkside Hall and the blue-and-white-striped South Hall in San Jose will become temporary shelters for people experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 crisis. In south San Jose, 105 trailers from the state are sitting in a parking lot at Story Road and Remillard Court, but will be refurbished to temporarily shelter homeless residents, officials said Friday.

Prior to the pandemic, San Jose only had 849 shelter beds available for 5,117 unsheltered residents, according to a new memo from lawmakers.

On Tuesday, San Jose councilmembers will vote to declare a “shelter crisis” and allocate $17.2 million from a homeless prevention fund to lease, purchase or build more “emergency housing” — including prefabricated modular units — for individuals impacted by the pandemic. The housing will be “non-congregate” to allow people to self-quarantine.

Santa Clara County has opened a temporary shelter at the fairgrounds where 15 trailers will be set up to house 60 people with mild cases or symptoms of coronavirus.

And while most officials are focused on getting shelters set up in the near-term, how those efforts will change the way Silicon Valley and all of California addresses homelessness remains to be seen, but some officials say there will be a change.

“We’re not just thinking short term,” Newsom said, adding that the state is thinking about “long-term supports so that we could get people off the streets in a permanent way.”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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