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California Leasing Hotels For Homeless People During Coronavirus Crisis

Rich Ibarra / Capital Public Radio

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration sees a potential “silver lining” to leasing thousands of hotel rooms for homeless people to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“This is an opportunity to bring folks indoors, and then try to get them into permanent housing when this is said and done,” said Ali Sutton, deputy secretary for homelessness, in an interview with CapRadio.

California is currently working to lease hotels and motels for homeless people during the crisis. If that works out, it could also mean purchasing the properties from owners, who may be under economic duress after the state emerges from its efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. The state may do the same with apartment buildings.

State and county officials want to move people experiencing homelessness into more stable, sanitary living conditions, which they hope will save lives and lessen the impact on hospitals and the health-care system.

“The opportunity to turn this into some permanent housing solutions,” Sutton said, “and adding stock is something we’re really trying to keep an eye on moving forward.”

On Saturday, Newsom announced that over 2,400 hotel rooms had already been secured, with about 1,900 in San Diego County alone. Sutton says the number statewide is now closer to 4,000 rooms.

She says counties are leading the negotiations with hotels and motels, and the state is facilitating efforts. Officials are currently focusing on California’s seven largest counties: Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Clara, Orange and Alameda.

Priority will be given to people experiencing homelessness who test positive for COVID-19, are showing symptoms or are elderly. The state has already identified one homeless person who died from coronavirus,in Santa Clara County.

“We’re expecting and planning for there to be outbreaks in some of our homeless communities,” Sutton said.

Sutton says the goal is not to move everyone from the streets into a hotel or motel. She says the state will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines for safely managing homeless encampments during the crisis.

The cost of leasing the hotel and motels remains unclear, and likely depends on how long the outbreak lasts. The state dispersed $100 million in emergency funds in recent days to counties, which may be used to mitigate spread of coronavirus in unsheltered communities.

Counties can also use money previously allocated by the state for addressing homelessness. Last year, the budget set aside $650 million.

The state is also in talks with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure additional funding.

Sutton said it’s too early to determine if the state or counties would lead the effort after the crisis to acquire distressed hotels or apartment buildings and convert them into stable housing — if the option is explored at all. Unspent funds from previous budgets to address homelessness could be used, but other funding sources have not been identified.

Copyright 2020 CapRadio