With the end of a COVID program, some 6,000 people living in motels must move: NPR

California’s program to house people in motels to get them off the streets during COVID is ending. But where the more than 6,000 people living in these settlements are headed is unclear.


Since the start of the pandemic, California has moved people off the streets and housed them in hotels and motels to prevent COVID from spreading through homeless camps. Since then, Project Roomkey has served over 50,000 people. But now, with funding drying up, the remaining sites are closing. Vanessa Rancano of member station KQED reports that some 6,000 people now need to find new accommodation.

VANESSA RANCANO, BYLINE: After 22 years on the streets or behind bars, Horace Cage is moving into his own apartment in Oakland. Hey.

HORACE CAGE: How are you?

RANCANO: How are you?

CAGE: Assemble my furniture. Some of my furniture has just arrived.

RANCANO: Oh, good.

Inside the sunny two-room apartment, her dog happily gnaws on a bone. Cage chose new carpets and furniture.

CAGE: The dining room. We haven’t seen the kitchen yet.

RANCANO: Cage was part of the latest wave of Roomkey placements here in Alameda County. At the start of the pandemic, he lived in an RV but later moved to a hotel room. With his hotel closing at the end of the summer, he needed permanent accommodation. At the end of June, he had one.

CAGE: And this is my kitchen.

RANCANO: The place gives him hope. He shows me one of the first things he hung on the wall.

CAGE: A Christmas stocking.

RANCANO: It’s the middle of summer, but he’s already thinking about having family over for the holidays. Cage is considered a success story of the Roomkey project, moving from homelessness to Section 8 housing.

KERRY ABBOTT: The results have been phenomenal in terms of getting people into permanent housing and, you know, not seeing people back on the streets.

RANCANO: Kerry Abbott directs homelessness services for Alameda County. Statewide, about 20% of people who went through Project Roomkey ended up with permanent housing. Others went to temporary accommodation, shelters or institutions. Abbott says the main reason the Roomkey project is ending is because it’s very expensive.

ABBOTT: Unless there are new announcements for an extension from FEMA or the state’s Roomkey program, we would need to scale that down. And so we really worked on housing plans for everyone.

RANCANO: There are still about 60 people living in the last Roomkey hotel in Alameda County. Vince Russo manages it for the nonprofit Abode Housing Services. It’s up to him and his team to each find another place to live.

VINCE RUSSO: It will really be their choice. Like, if we say, look; those are the only two choices we have, really emphasizing that when the Radisson closes, where do you want to be? Right? Do you want to go back to the street?

RANCANO: Across California, 15% are returning to the streets, including Daniella Desjardins and her family, who have been pushed from one Roomkey hotel to another. They were given choices, but it wasn’t that simple. The apartments available were too far from their children’s school. The motel was also too far from the school. They knew it was not sustainable. We couldn’t get them there.

DANIELLA DESJARDINS: We couldn’t bring them to school, you know?

RANCANO: So Desjardins, her husband Michael and their three children left the hotel.

MICHAEL DESJARDINS: Yes, sometimes we stayed in our car.

D DESJARDINS: In fact, we sometimes stayed in our storage unit.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We don’t mind jumping either – set up in a nice park and park our car outside and camp. It does not matter.

D DESJARDINS: At least you’ll be on time for school every day, right?


RANCANO: After almost two years, and with the help of a lawyer, the family finally managed to obtain a housing voucher for Berkeley, the city where their children go to school. But they couldn’t find an apartment.


M DESJARDINS: I’m a little worried. I don’t want to live on the streets.

D DESJARDINS: We live in a frightening time of change and uncertainty.

RANCANO: Uncertain not only for the Desjardins family, but for the thousands of other people who are leaving hotels and motels as the Roomkey project draws to a close. For NPR News, I’m Vanessa Rancano in San Francisco.

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