Housing Homeless Has Cost Over $1M a Month

SHELTER—The Motel 6 in Newbury Park is one of the sites in the county being used to house and isolate homeless people who are vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered stay-home orders across the state in March, Ventura County began housing more than 400 homeless people in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

But as the state continues to reopen in phases, county leaders are looking for ways to transition the 350 people still living in four leased motels and move them into shelters and other forms of housing.

“The goal is to have as few people as possible return to the streets,” said Tara Carruth, a member of the Ventura County Executive Office, which coordinates the region’s response to homelessness.

Carruth oversees the county’s role in the statewide Project Roomkey. As part of the program, two motels in Ventura, one in Oxnard and one in Newbury Park are being leased to house the most vulnerable members of the local homeless population.

The homeless people picked to live in the motels—including individuals who are 65 or older and those who have serious health conditions—are considered by the state to be most at risk for contracting the virus.

The motels have also been used to provide alternative housing to a small number of Ventura County residents who tested positive or were exposed to COVID-19 and wanted to quarantine away from their families or roommates.

Based on figures from a 2019 report by the Ventura County Continuum of Care Alliance, the number of homeless people being housed during the pandemic is around a quarter of the county’s homeless population. According to the report, last year’s countywide homeless population topped 1,600, with the most homeless people found in Oxnard, Ventura, Simi Valley and unincorporated areas of the county.

Though other counties in the state faced pushback from people who did not want to live in county-provided housing, Carruth said, Ventura County saw the opposite. Most people, she said, wanted placement in one of the motel rooms.

“It dispelled the myth that people don’t want to go indoors because people were very gracious for the opportunity,” Carruth said. “For the most part, everyone was willing to follow the rules and take the opportunity to come indoors and be safe.”

Many of the motel’s residents want the program to continue after the pandemic is over, Carruth said, but county leaders are unsure if that’s fiscally possible.

The costs of the local housing effort have been just over $1 million per month, including motel leases, security, food, laundry and other necessities for the residents. About 75% of these expenses will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while the county is leveraging state emergency funds to offset the remaining 25%.

Without state and federal support, it’s unlikely the program can continue past June 30, which is when the county’s FEMA funding is due to run out. Once FEMA stops approving 30-day extensions for emergency housing funds, Carruth said, the program will likely come to a halt.

There has been talk at the state level about California providing funding for the conversion of motels into more permanent housing facilities for homeless people. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed budgeting $750 million to buy and convert hotels and motels currently being used for emergency homeless housing.

Beyond avoiding a widespread COVID-19 breakout among the homeless population, Carruth said, there have been benefits to the motel program. Early indications suggest that having several hundred people off the street has led to a decrease in emergency service calls.

As the number of county residents testing positive for the virus has slowed, so has the number of people wanting to check into the county’s leased motels. The county has also stopped sheltering non-homeless people—except in extreme cases—so it can begin to wind the program down.

Of the approximately 50 people who have left the motels so far, Carruth said, many have been placed in skilled nursing facilities while others have found alternative housing or reconnected with family. County leaders hope to find similar next steps for the remaining 350 people.

“I think the greatest community benefit is that we’ve made a lot of progress in engaging this community of people and starting them toward a housing plan,” Carruth said.

Source: The Camarillo Acorn article from June 12, 2020