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155 Project Roomkey hotel rooms reserved in SLO County; none occupied

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While stay-at-home orders remain in place statewide, people experiencing homelessness have been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. To try to help that population, in early April, California’s governor announced Project Roomkey, saying a federal agency would pay 75% of the cost to house homeless individuals in hotels and motels across the state.

But how many hotel and motel rooms are actually currently housing homeless people on the Central Coast?

As of June 1, in Santa Barbara County, 140 of the 141 rooms rented under Project Roomkey are occupied. In San Luis Obispo County, it’s zero out of 155.

With April 2020 unemployment rates at nearly 14 percent in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county, some may lose their homes or be evicted in the coming months.

The most recent counts found that almost 6,000 people already experience homelessness in Santa Barbara, SLO and Monterey counties. Some people are in shelters, many live in cars or outside.

Since Project Roomkeywas launched, Santa Barbara County is now housing some of the individuals in at least 123 hotel rooms, according to the county’s homeless assistance programs manager Kimberlee Albers. As of the most recent tallies, the number has since risen to 141.

In an email to KCBX News, Albers said 74 of those rooms are run by the county, with case managers on site 12 hours a day, three meals delivered to the residents daily and free transportation to important appointments and essential tasks. The other 49 rooms are being funded by various agencies like the Veteran’s Administration.

Albers said the names and locations of hotels participating are not being disclosed. Some of the residents are cycling in and out of the facilities for isolation and quarantine, Albers said, and some qualifying veterans have been in hotels for over sixty days.

Albers said case managers are also currently working with each individual to help them find mental health treatment and permanent housing. And as of the end of May, Albers said they’ve reached capacity and are now only accepting people who are 65 and older with pre-existing health conditions.

In San Luis Obispo County, 155 rooms are currently reserved for people to be housed, but only if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or are waiting to hear back on the results of the test.

County spokesperson Michelle Shoresman said that no one has been housed in any of those 155 hotel rooms. Under the Project Roomkey program, only occupied rooms are paid for by FEMA, the federal emergency management agency.

Although SLO county has accessed the Project Roomkey program by reserving rooms for people who tested positive or are awaiting testing, the county is not housing any homeless individuals who are over 65 with pre-existing health conditions in the open rooms, as is Santa Barbara County.

While recently praising local governments who have participated in Project Roomkey, Newsom said for every county that agreed, another was opposing the project and were blocking efforts to help the homeless, but he didn’t elaborate on which counties specifically.

Darryl Steinberg, Sacramento’s mayor who sits on the governor’s homeless task force—called the Council of Regional Homeless Advisors—countered Newsom’s narrative, saying in an interview with the Los Angeles Timesthat there “aren’t enough service providers to help run the hotels and eventually help transition the residents into permanent housing.”

Shoresman also said SLO County received some trailers from the state to house people, but those remain unused as well.

Michael Barros is a reporter in the KCBX Newsroom. He has a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University, where he spent two years reporting for the campus news outlet, Mustang Media. He spent several months as an intern for NPR's All Things Considered in Washington D.C. Michael covers breaking news for daily newscasts, and creates features for the local broadcast of All Things Considered and Morning Edition. When he's not reporting, he's probably hammocking in a forest or painting.
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