Emergency sheltering for homeless could get a much-needed extension thanks to new federal funding

To date Santa Cruz County has funding secured through September for a 275-unit emergency shelter program that reserves hotel and motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. Additional federal funding that could soon come the county’s way should help officials keep about 100 units operational for another three months.

Fears of a post-pandemic gap in homeless housing services are looking less dire thanks to an expected surge in federal funds.

Santa Cruz County could be in line for close to $2.16 million in federal funding, which would allow officials to extend a portion of the emergency shelter program through the end of the year and buy them more time to transition people experiencing homelessness from hotel rooms to more permanent housing.

County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to apply for the pot of funding, which is reserved for Santa Cruz County and would be split among four programs. The biggest sum — nearly $1.36 million — would be used to extend a state program called Project Roomkey.

That program was established by state officials last year in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness by sheltering them in hotel and motel rooms.

The county participates in the emergency shelter program by leasing and operating six Project Roomkey hotels and motels and to date has secured funding through September.

The additional funding should help county officials keep about 100 units operational for another three months after September, according to Dr. Robert Ratner, the county’s director of the Housing for Health Division. Overall, the program totals 275 units currently.

“We may make adjustments to the plan depending on other funding opportunities and the status of the different Roomkey sites in September,” Ratner said in an email to Lookout after Tuesday’s vote.

Understanding the ‘rehousing wave’

This spring the county launched a “rehousing wave” with supervisors allocating about $8 million to help with a transition from emergency shelters to more stable housing as the pandemic appears to ebb. The additional federal funding will help act as a bridge before more permanent housing can be found for some of the hotel and motel guests.

Additionally, supervisors signed off on the following funding allocations:

  • About $350,000 for COVID-19 support services for low-income and homeless residents on the North Coast of the county. The nonprofit Community Action Board through the Davenport Resource Center will provide case management to address COVID-19 impacts to that population. Services will include health, education and vaccination support “in an area that has very limited and spotty WIFI and/or cell phone reception” and limited transportation, according to county documents.
  • About $348,000 for Live Oak school-based COVID-19 services to provide “social and emotional support” to low-income Live Oak School District students and families affected by the pandemic. “The project includes hiring an on-site community health outreach worker and social worker who will lead group sessions for students, check in with students, and serve as a training resource for teachers, to help students with depression, disempowerment, isolation, anxiety, frustration, and boredom that they have experienced as they readjust to classroom-based instruction,” according to the proposal.
  • About $100,000 for Meals on Wheels — an allotment directed by supervisors Tuesday amid worries that not enough attention was being paid to the southern portion of the county. The program had originally requested more than $570,000 to cover food costs associated with continuing the expansion of a 5-day breakfast pack for seniors sheltering in place, but program representatives said Tuesday that any amount of funding would help.

Need for Meals on Wheels boost

Initially, county staff had recommended to allot even more money for the Project Roomkey program — close to $1.46 million in total — but county supervisors on Tuesday said they wanted to take $100,000 from that pot and put it toward the Meals on Wheels proposal.

Meals on Wheels, along with the Second Harvest Food Bank — which also applied for funding but county officials said wasn’t able to provide the data needed — are “great assets” to South County, said Supervisor Greg Caput who proposed funneling some money toward the meal-delivery program.

His biggest concern, Caput said, was that with the pandemic people have been more isolated than they’ve ever been.

“And then you have programs like Meals on Wheels, (which) sometimes along with the mailman is the only actual personal touch where people have contact during … the times we’ve gone through,” he said.

County staff said the funding opportunity limits them to submitting no more than four proposals and that the three programs initially recommended were the strongest ones out of the five they received. They also had some concerns about whether or not other federal funding sources would be available for the food programs.

“We felt that the Roomkey proposal was really a very critical and very urgent need,” Suzanne Ise, a principal planner with the county’s planning department in the housing division, told supervisors, adding that some money could potentially be carved out of the Project Roomkey pot.

Lisa Berkowitz, the program director of Meals on Wheels for the nonprofit Community Bridges, said that by May 2020 her organization had seen an 86% increase in the average daily number of seniors it was serving.

“COVID-19’s impact has been felt most significantly by seniors and those served by Meals on Wheels are among the most vulnerable,” she told supervisors.