The Days Hotel by the Oakland airport is one of several hotels leased by Alameda County to house homeless people during the pandemic. The future of that hotel program is in question. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Over one thousand unhoused people in Alameda County have been living in hotel rooms converted into COVID-19 shelters, but the future of this program is in question. Leases are expiring and there may not be enough money to extend the contracts for all of the hotels currently in use. The possibility that the program will be scaled back comes just as the weather is getting colder and virus cases are surging.

Officials are scrambling to move hotel residents into permanent housing, including brand-new complexes opening up with state relief money. But advocates fear that the progress made by the hotel program could be reversed if funding runs out before the more than 1,200 people currently living in hotels get placed in housing. In interviews this week with The Oaklandside, two people living and working in the hotels said they were recently told that the program is ending before January. 

A county spokesperson said she could not confirm yet whether some of the Roomkey hotels will be closed before the end of December but that the county expects more information about how much funding it might get from the state to continue the program by Monday. Most of the Oakland and Berkeley hotels are still above 90% occupancy, according to the county, but rooms are not being refilled as vacancies arise. 

The hotel shelters have been running since April through Project Roomkey, a statewide program funded by coronavirus relief money. The program has taken advantage of a vanishing tourism industry that left hotel rooms empty. Some of the Roomkey hotels are reserved for people who test positive for COVID-19, while others serve those who are at higher health risk because of their age or medical histories. 

It’s unclear exactly how much money has been spent on the program locally, but five of the county’s hotels were leased in Oakland and Berkeley on six-month contracts starting June 30 for $24.5 million. Statewide, Project Roomkey has cost well over $150 million. 

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he’ll distribute an additional $62 million to extend Roomkey programs across the state and help move residents into permanent housing. 

In a press release, the governor’s office said it was clear that cities and counties needed more support “so that clients living in motel or hotel rooms under this life-saving program will not be forced to return to street homelessness while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact California.”

Alameda County leaders hope this is good news but said they don’t know yet how much of the funding they will receive, and or when they’ll get the money. The new $62 million allotment for the entire state is a little over double what it’s cost to house people in five hotels for six months locally. 

Kerry Abbott, director of the county’s Office of Homeless Care & Coordination, said Alameda County is “actively negotiating” with hotel owners about continuing to house homeless residents. However, she said that as funding for hotel housing tapers off, her staff is working to place homeless people into longer-term options, including existing transitional housing sites and through Homekey, the successor to Project Roomkey. The Homekey program provides funding to counties and cities to purchase and rehab buildings for use as supportive housing, and comes with tight deadlines for moving people in. Several of these sites are in the process of opening in Oakland, but they currently don’t have the same capacity as Roomkey.

“We still plan to ramp down over the next several months, but as we get people housed,” Abbott said in an email. Already, 100 people have been moved from the Roomkey hotels reserved for medically vulnerable residents to supportive housing or subsidized private rentals, according to Abbott.

In San Francisco, city officials introduced legislation this week to prevent the December closure of the shelter-in-place hotels there.

Among the people living and working in the hotels in Alameda County, “there’s a lot of apprehension and fear” that Roomkey will end soon, said Serena Deverich, a UCSF nurse practitioner student who volunteers at the Radisson Hotel by the Oakland airport through her school. She worries the potential closure of the hotels will put residents in danger.

Two Quality Inns, in Oakland (pictured) and Berkeley, are part of the county’s Roomkey lineup. Alameda County has purchased one hotel and is pursuing another, for permanent housing when the program wraps up. Credit: Pete Rosos

“It’s taken a lot to get people settled in with services,” said Deverich, who helps residents get their medication and get to their health care appointments. The protected, indoor environment not only lessens residents’ risks of contracting COVID-19, she said, but also provides them with the stability they need to focus on other aspects of their health and wellbeing. Deverich has also spent time interviewing residents for her coursework, and when she asks them about barriers to staying healthy, they always mention their lack of housing, she said. 

Roomkey has supplied that respite: “Many people have been there since [early in the pandemic], so some of the rooms I’ve been in have felt pretty homey,” Deverich said. “It feels like a community for some people.”

Not all Roomkey residents feel that way. Pink Cloud, a longtime Berkeley resident and musician who was living in an encampment before the pandemic, said he has felt trapped and poorly treated during his stay at the Quality Inn on University Avenue. The restrictions on visitors and personal belongings make him feel a loss of freedom and a sense of isolation.

“Roomkey is a misnomer,” he said, “because nobody gets to have a key.”

But Roomkey is widely considered a success by advocates and health experts, who partially credit the model with preventing the widespread coronavirus outbreaks initially expected within houseless communities. 

The hotels also offer local governments opportunities to permanently expand their affordable housing stock without the arduous and costly process of developing new buildings. Several of Alameda County’s contracts with hotel owners included the option for the county to purchase the buildings. Abbott said Alameda County has already bought one and is in the process of buying another.

Roomkey proponents still worry those new options won’t open soon enough, or offer enough rooms, to house the 1,200 hotel residents, let alone the thousands more people living without permanent housing in the county.

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.