San Jose man with heart failure, diabetes, HIV denied room under state COVID-19 program
Homeless resident Anthony Domondon said he wants to avoid COVID-19 and stay in an isolated motel room because of his health complications. Photo by Vicente Vera

    Anthony Domondon has congestive heart failure, diabetes and HIV – but that wasn’t enough for a hotel room under the state’s program for COVID-19 vulnerable homeless people.

    “Basically they want me in a body bag before they give me a hotel room,” Domondon told San José Spotlight.

    Sitting on a curb outside a now-closed Office Max in downtown San Jose, colostomy bag under his sweatshirt, Domondon said he was under the impression that he only needed three pre-existing medical conditions to enroll in Project Roomkey.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom launched “Project Roomkey” on April 3, funded primarily by FEMA, to keep sick or elderly homeless people off the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor joined San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and other elected leaders to much fanfare to announce an additional $200 million for the program in October.

    But when Domondon tried to enroll, he was told by county officials that homeless people under 60 need at least four pre-existing conditions to get a hotel room.

    “They were just like, ‘No, that’s it’,” said Shaunn Cartwright, a longtime homeless advocate and founder of the Unhoused Response Group. “I was just shocked — with all these conditions and being newly back on the streets, with COVID-19 and winter, that they would make no accommodation.”

    Unexplained changes

    Santa Clara County runs eight hotel sites with 540 leased rooms through the project, according to county officials. But the program is still leaving people like Domondon out in the cold.

    Officials from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department would not explain why the criteria changed or provide a criteria list. County health officials said the number of medical conditions a homeless person has is part of the assessment to qualify for a room.

    “Even one condition can qualify an individual for a hotel room based on the severity of the condition and resulting risk of complications of COVID-19,” the county said in a statement to San José Spotlight.

    People over 75, however, can receive a room even without any pre-existing medical conditions.

    Eligibility for who gets a hotel room is determined by medical professionals from the county’s Valley Homeless Healthcare Program, officials added, which provides health care services to more than 7,000 homeless people every year.

    Mark Tiernan, deputy chief of staff for Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee, said his office has also received inquiries regarding a criteria change for Project Roomkey.

    “It’s really obvious that the COVID-19 numbers and deaths are continuing to rise,” Tiernan said. “Going from the three criteria to a fourth criteria demonstrates that we’re actually needing more rooms.”

    County officials say only five rooms are still available through Project Roomkey. The San Jose City Council recently approved grant agreements to keep one such hotel, the Sure Stay Hotel at 1488 N. First Street, operating until the shelter in place order is lifted.

    Back on the streets

    Domondon wound up in an encampment at Columbus Park after his health problems made it impossible to keep a job and pay rent.

    The 35-year-old returned to his ex-boyfriend’s tent at the park because he said it was the only home he knew.

    “It was hard for me to go to sleep because not only is there crystal methamphetamine getting passed around, but there’s the worry of somebody coming and burning down your tent while you’re sleeping in it,” Domondon said.

    Homeless outreach volunteer Nguyen Pham, who became friends with Domondon, expressed surprise that he wasn’t eligible for a hotel room despite his medical conditions.

    “I would use my own money to get him and his tent-mates food, blankets and even decorations for his tent,” Pham said.

    Nguyen Pham (left) hands over a bag filled with blankets and other essential items to Anthony Domondon before he heads over to San Jose’s South Hall pop-up shelter. Photo by Vicente Vera.

    Once back at the camp, Domondon knew that for his health’s sake he needed to get a roof over his head.

    “I basically have so many things wrong with me that if I’m out here any longer I’m going to die,” Domondon said. “My doctor himself told me that if I came back here, I was going to die.”

    In wealthy Silicon Valley, a lack of shelter space amid the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to an alarming rise in homeless deaths. As reported by San José Spotlight, a homeless man named Ruben Eldridge Hill was found dead in December under an overhang in downtown San Jose. There was only one overnight shelter open that night — in Gilroy.

    According to the county coroner’s office, 196 homeless people died between Dec. 1, 2019 and Nov. 30, 2020. That represents a 22% increase over last year’s homeless death rate of 161 people. 

    After being denied a hotel room to protect himself from COVID-19, he was able to secure housing at South Hall – one of San Jose’s temporary pop-up shelters to make up for lost beds because of social distancing at permanent shelters.

    “I didn’t feel like him staying in a tent that’s all ripped was a good idea,” Pham said. “I was happy to see he got into South Hall.”

    Domondon said he still worries about catching COVID-19 since he’s sharing the shelter facility with other people. Santa Clara County Public Health officials said 440 homeless people have stayed at South Hall since Nov. 18.

    The pop-up shelter also had 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in that time period, and five cases among staff.

    Anthony Domondon prepares to leave for South Hall in his escort vehicle after an outreach worker with the pop-up shelter picks him up from near Columbus Park in San Jose. Photo by Vicente Vera.

    Getting up from the curb where he was sitting with nothing but a blanket and a laptop, Domondon let out some fluid from his colostomy bag before he was taken to South Hall by an outreach worker.

    “I’m kind of iffy about going to South Hall, but I need to stay out of the elements because of my colostomy bag and my eyesight is bad at night,” Domondon said. “But at the same time I’m ready to just freaking leave it all and focus on me.”

    Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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