Motels in Sacramento County have sheltered hundreds of homeless residents during the pandemic. But they could close soon.

Updated April 16

Sacramento County plans to potentially close three motels this spring that housed hundreds of former homeless residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing concerns about costs, county officials confirmed on Friday.

Plans to close the motels, which are part of the state’s relatively successful Roomkey project, raise concerns that many of those who have benefited will end up on the streets. As of April 10, 468 previously unhoused people were staying in motel rooms in the county.

“This is going to be tragic,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition To End Homelessness. “We’re trying to figure out why the county is doing this. ”

Earlier this week, county spokesperson Janna Haynes said officials were not ready this week to publicly discuss the plans.

Julie Field, head of the county’s homelessness services program, said on Friday officials did not expect Roomkey to be permanent and noted that there are cheaper options for housing people. She cited motel vouchers as an option, though these don’t include wrap-around services.

Roomkey Motel rooms cost $ 4,000 per month, including security, food and other services, she said.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced in December that the federal government had authorized reimbursements for the program throughout the pandemic.

But Field said the county initially received reimbursements for just 43% of its Roomkey costs, although it expects a much higher percentage.

“For an emergency response, it all made a lot of sense,” Field said of Project Roomkey. “But as a response to homelessness and shelter, it’s not the most cost-effective model. ”

Despite this, she said: “As long as we can find the funding to continue, we will.” Field added that initial plans called for a motel to close in late April, late May, and third at the end of June.

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg both said Friday it was too early to close motels.

Serna called the plans “unacceptable”.

“We are still not out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic,” he added.

Serna said he would recommend at Tuesday’s supervisory board meeting that the county extend the motel program at least until August, while the county finds a solution.

County officials said they found permanent housing for 174 of the 1,356 residents who participated in Roomkey. Field said the county plans to move 80 more residents into a new housing project soon.

But given the ongoing homelessness crisis in the area, Steinberg said now was not the time to close the motels.

“Together, the city and the county must add beds, roofs and safe spaces, without subtracting,” added the mayor.

Those working with homeless people said the prospect of being forced back onto the streets would be more than some residents can handle.

“For the people of these [motel] rooms, you panic. The stress level is at its peak, ”said Joe Smith, director of advocacy at Loaves & Fishes, which provides services to homeless residents.

The county has provided motel rooms, health and dental services to the most vulnerable homeless residents since last spring as part of the Roomkey project. Newsom said in his state-of-the-state address last month that the initiative had helped more than 35,000 people in California.

County officials also recently launched a new program separate from Roomkey that provides motel vouchers to homeless people before bad weather hits.

Advocates for homeless people say Roomkey has been successful in preventing major outbreaks of COVID-19 both locally and statewide. But some fear that efforts to find permanent housing for the motel’s residents will fail.

Newsom introduced Project Homekey last fall to ease the transition. This project provided $ 800 million to cities and counties to purchase motels and hotels, with the goal of creating approximately 6,000 housing units for the homeless.

Sacramento City Council member Katie Valenzuela said she believes the county has a responsibility to find transitional housing for the residents of the motel. In the meantime, she added that the city is looking to see if it can help extend the Project Roomkey motel contracts.

“The city is obviously open to as many motel sites as possible online to meet the needs,” she said.

The city of Sacramento has issued hundreds of motel coupons to homeless people in recent months. It also opened emergency heated shelters and a municipal parking lot for the homeless after several homeless people died in a severe storm in January. Advocates have pushed city officials for years to open centers regardless of the weather.

Curtis Freeman was a Roomkey beneficiary. Until last spring, he lived in a crowded tent camp under a Sacramento freeway, often fearing for his life.

“I can go and lock my doors behind me,” Freeman said outside his motel room at La Quinta Inn in January. “I don’t have to worry about no one coming in. I can lie down and relax.”

Freeman said Thursday he was told the motel “may close” to former homeless residents in the coming weeks. While the shutdown can affect a lot of people, Freeman said he was one of the lucky ones.

“I’m moving into an apartment next week,” he said. “I’m on my way home.”

There are an estimated 5,600 homeless people in Sacramento County, according to the most recent survey from 2019.

Statewide, the homeless population rose 7% early last year to about 161,548, according to a federal report released last month. This was before the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis that spread across California.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information from Sacramento County officials.

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