San Diego County scrambles to continue COVID-19 hotel program
Guests of a COVID-19 hotel shelter will have to leave a month sooner than expected, potentially bringing an end to San Diego County’s troubled pandemic program that was designed to protect people with nowhere to go.
County spokesperson Michael Workman has confirmed that the owner of an Old Town hotel, which has been used for more than a year to shelter people with underlying medical conditions, gave 30 days’ notice to terminate a contract with the county at the end of May.
That means if the remaining 34 guests don’t find a place to live within the next few weeks, they may be sent to a homeless shelter, Workman said. Attempts to reach the owner of the hotel were unsuccessful.
The county’s hotel sheltering program is supposed to run through the end of June — thanks to an extension of federal funding. Workman said officials are looking for other options to continue the program, but “finding willing hotels as we approach summer is a challenge.”
Because this was unexpected, Workman said, officials still don’t know when guests will need to leave. But that’s a crucial piece of information, and without it, guests like Bill Beem and his wife, Shera, are left worrying about gaps in housing.
“Me and my wife are waiting (for a Section 8 apartment) just to be inspected, and that’s it,” he said, adding that it likely won’t be ready until June.
Costing at least $5.2 million a month, the hotel program is the first of its kind and has been praised for its success in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. But inewsource reporting since the program began in March 2020 has revealed mismanagement, neglect and harassment of guests staying at the hotels.
County officials took over several hotels at the start of the pandemic to temporarily house people who needed somewhere to isolate — many of whom are unhoused and might be struggling with mental illness or substance abuse disorders.
With data, documents and dozens of interviews, inewsource exposed an array of problems at the hotels, which were later confirmed by a blistering evaluation released by San Diego State University in August. The evaluation also said the county’s contractor, Equus Workforce Solutions, was unqualified to run the program and employed poorly trained staff, who forced residents to suffer through long delays for much-needed medication and who allowed gaps in services that may have led to overdoses and suicide.
At least seven people have died in the program, according to records obtained from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office. Five deaths have been linked to overdoses.
The hotel program has two components: isolation and high-risk hotels.
People who came in contact with the coronavirus and have nowhere to quarantine — including first responders who needed to be away from family, as well as people without housing — were sent to an isolation hotel. This portion of the program ended in March.
Unhoused people who have underlying medical conditions were given a room in a high-risk hotel in Old Town. But with it closing a month early, some fear they may wind up on the streets.
Workman said 30 of the 34 remaining guests have been given housing subsidies, but he would not provide details about the help county staff and contractors offer guests to place them into housing.
Beem and his wife have been staying at the hotel for more than a year. This week, he said, Equus employees started telling guests that if they don’t find a place to live in the next couple weeks, they will be sent to a homeless shelter.
Beem said he has one of those subsidies and an apartment lined up, but they can’t move in until next month, and his wife has medical needs that cannot be met at a homeless shelter. The potential of having to go back to the streets, even for just a couple weeks, is causing incredible stress and anxiety.
“I don’t want to lose my wife,” he said. “She won’t make it out there on the streets.”
The county shouldn’t have any problem providing hotel vouchers to the remaining 34 guests, said Amie Zamudio, a co-founder of Housing 4 the Homeless who has been helping place people into hotels and find permanent housing. Failure to do so would put people in danger, she said.
“I’m personally shocked,” Zamudio said. “I find this to be an excuse because you’re speaking to someone who has been placing medically compromised unhoused folks into hotels for many, many, many years — as just one individual mother. I’m almost speechless.”
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