Alameda County bought the Comfort Inn and Days Hotel in East Oakland to continue sheltering people there. But money has run out for other hotel shelters. Credit: Pete Rosos

Alameda County has managed to shelter more than 2,000 homeless people during the pandemic in hotels, keeping them safe from COVID-19 and other harms that come with living on the streets, thanks to state and federal funds. Money for the program expired recently, however, and the county has been winding down “Project Roomkey” and moving people out of the hotels. But an executive order signed by President Biden last week suggests that significantly more federal support might be available to keep the program going. 

With so many twists and turns, the residents of these hotels, and advocates for homeless people, say they’re confused about the program’s status. The Oaklandside looked into the latest developments this past week.

A woman living at the Marina Village Inn in Alameda, one of the hotels that’s closing after Jan. 31, said she’s been kept in the dark about what’s going to happen. The woman, who asked not to be named because she just left a violent relationship and doesn’t want her location public, said residents have been “given the run-around.” They were told they’d be set up with permanent housing, but there’s been little follow-up with just a few days left before move-out, she said. 

The woman has put some of her belongings in storage, she said, but given her unstable medical condition and the nature of her relationship, she feels she should be prioritized for a safe place to live.

Kerry Abbott, who directs the county’s Office of Homeless Care and Coordination, said every Project Roomkey participant, including the woman we spoke to in Alameda, will be offered another housing option before they’re told to leave a hotel.

Currently, Alameda County leases or owns eight hotels—two of which are for COVID-positive guests and six that house medically vulnerable people as a preventive measure—Abbott said. The city of Fremont leases an additional hotel, and the county rents another 120 individual hotel rooms scattered across the region, typically for people in need of immediate help or protection. 

Already, Abbott said, the county has moved 316 hotel guests into housing, “which is really exciting and inspiring.” Those residents have moved to a range of places, including permanent supportive housing facilities run by the county or cities, or to private apartments with rent subsidized in part by the county.

While the woman at the Alameda hotel said she was disturbed to be told she could move to a “safe parking” site where she could sleep in her car, Abbott said the county does not consider parking to be housing, and said no one who has to move out of Project Roomkey hotels will be offered only a safe parking site. 

Additional federal and state COVID-19 funding to help counties move shelter residents into housing has made a huge difference in Alameda and for Roomkey guests, Abbott said. Before the pandemic, Alameda County had already begun studying the possibilities of increasing government subsidies for rent in private housing where tenants don’t receive many services but still need sustained financial help to pay rent, beyond an initial boost. The relief money has allowed the county to provide ongoing subsidies for that kind of “bridge housing.”

However, the county won’t be able to immediately house every resident in the 170 rooms in the two hotels closing this month, Abbott said. Between 25 and 50 households will be relocated to other Roomkey hotels, which have some vacancies because the county stopped accepting new guests in the fall.

Abbott said Roomkey has been “very popular” among the unhoused residents, and the success of the program has demonstrated the wide-reaching effects of providing a stable, consistent place to sleep and eat. 

“That’s been a huge lesson—how much more we can do with our clients when they have a safe place,” she said. “We’ve heard from health providers that people are really given the chance to get better, and engage in medical care and other types of care they need, in ways they’re not able to do on the streets.” 

One Roomkey resident, Pastor Preston Walker, said his five-month stay at the Days Inn hotel in East Oakland has been “great.” He was living in a tent encampment by Lake Merritt until a healthcare worker called him up to offer the room. “I searched myself and my insides, and said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it,’” recalled Walker, who said he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to continue staying at the site, based on what he’s been told about his eligibility for permanent housing.

Other residents, like the woman in Alameda, have told The Oaklandside that rules around personal belongings and behavior are too restrictive. The woman said there’s also a gossipy social dynamic among the guests that has prompted her to stay holed up in her room. Even so, she said she hopes she’ll never have to go back to living in her car like she used to. 

President Biden’s new executive order, signed on Thursday, could dramatically expand Alameda County’s capacity to continue the hotel program. But the exact implications are unclear so far. The order says that FEMA, which currently reimburses counties and cities for 75% of the Roomkey cost, will now reimburse 100% of the cost of “non-congregate” shelters like hotels and other sites where residents live in private rooms. 

Homelessness advocates who’ve been pushing the government to increase reimbursement applauded the order.

On Friday, Abbott—who’d previously said the county did not expect a federal order affecting hotel programs—said the county finance department will need to research the impact of the order.

“We are actively reviewing our options with county leadership,” she said in an email.

Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan weighed in on Twitter last week, saying, “This will be very helpful in Oakland, where Council has directed staff to pursue this strategy for housing the homeless.” 

In the meantime, as hotels are still poised to close, Abbott acknowledged that “communication is something we always will aspire to do better,” so no residents are left feeling confused and concerned about their future.

“The hotel staff and case managers and housing navigators do have this information,” she said. “We have county staff meeting at all of the sites every week, to check in on the progress of housing plans.”

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.