The federal government will continue paying into California’s Project Roomkey until the pandemic ends, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday, eliminating some uncertainty around the program and potentially buying more time for unhoused residents sheltering in hotels throughout the state.
Under Project Roomkey, FEMA had agreed to reimburse California counties for 75% of the costs associated with putting homeless residents up in hotel rooms — but the counties had to reapply for the funding every month. As the pandemic dragged on, some Bay Area officials worried the reimbursements would end, and they’d be left footing the bill for the rooms. They began winding down their Roomkey programs, and attempting to move people from the hotels into long-term housing.
On Friday, Newsom turned that framework on its head with a letter to Project Roomkey providers. FEMA will no longer require counties to reapply for funding once a month. Instead, FEMA has authorized Project Roomkey reimbursements until the pandemic has ended, he said.
“Today’s welcome news from FEMA means we will have that sustained federal commitment through the COVID emergency, as you ultimately work to transition clients into stable housing,” Newsom wrote. “We know, and FEMA has now acknowledged, the need for Project Roomkey is greater than ever. This effort is key in reducing community transmission and addressing hospital surge by providing a safe shelter for those who test positive, who are exposed to COVID-19, or who are at high risk for medical complications were they to become infected, including seniors and those with chronic health conditions.”
It’s not clear whether Newsom’s announcement will prompt Bay Area counties to put off closing Roomkey hotels. Newsom did not specify exactly what qualifies as the end of the “COVID emergency” that will stop FEMA funding.
Last month, the governor’s office allocated another $62 million to the program, to help counties keep Project Roomkey hotels open, and to help them place occupants in permanent housing.
“We want to make sure that individuals that need to be housed as a result of COVID-19 are sheltered,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the state’s Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. “To the extent that the governor’s made additional money available, that’s an indication that yeah, we would really like counties to keep these Roomkey facilities open as long as there’s a need.”
Newsom’s letter follows a memo FEMA sent out Wednesday, doing away with the requirement to reapply monthly for reimbursement “due to the ongoing nature of the public health emergency and nationwide increase in COVID-19 cases.” And after the public health emergency has ended, applicants may be eligible for additional funding for up to 30 days, to help with the cost of closing the hotels, according to the memo. However, FEMA noted the agency may end or modify the funding authorization with at least a 30-day notice.
“This is definitely a big help to counties,” Kerry Abbott, Alameda County’s director of homeless care and coordination, wrote in an emailed statement.
In San Francisco, officials were waiting for more information.
“We’ve received the communication from FEMA and from the governor, and we’re looking into it for more specifics,” said Deborah Bouck, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
Friday’s news comes as COVID-19 cases continue to mount, and the state continues to set grim records. California reported its deadliest day of the pandemic yet this week, the Bay Area’s intensive care units are filling up and prompting renewed lockdowns, and an outbreak at a San Jose homeless shelter recently infected 55 people.
The latest surge has sparked concern from activists that as hotels close and permanent housing options remain limited, people will be forced from hotel rooms back onto the street. Bay Area officials say they’re doing everything they can to prevent that.
Alameda County plans to close two of its Project Roomkey hotels at the end of the month, and supervisors voted this week to extend leases on another two hotels through January, and the last two through February. San Francisco supervisors voted this week to pass a 60-day emergency ordinance that requires the city to continue moving people into Project Roomkey hotels, even as rooms are vacated when the prior occupants find housing. City officials had planned to move more than 500 people out of the hotels this month, but after pushback from critics, extended that timeline by three months.
Dan Carter was a reporter for nomad Labs, before becoming the lead editor. Dan has over forty bylines and has reported on countless stories concerning all things related to tech and science. Dan studied at CSUF.