County closing last two COVID-driven Project Roomkey shelters

Watsonville's Rodeway Inn is one of the last two Project Roomkey hotels. It will cease program operations Friday.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Project Roomkey provided shelter to more than 1,000 people in Santa Cruz County as a response to pandemic homeless needs. By the end of June, the county will close the last two of its six shelters — with most, but not all, of the residents placed in other housing.

Project Roomkey — the largest Santa Cruz County shelter program, in operation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — will close its final two locations in the coming weeks, with about two dozen of the temporary program’s participants still questioning where to go next.

The county launched Project Roomkey in March 2020 with two goals in mind: to quickly house the homeless amid the pandemic and to create a transition into permanent supportive housing. At its height in Santa Cruz County, the program operated at six hotels and motels split between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, sheltering more than 1,000 participants.

According to county spokesperson Jason Hoppin, the county will have spent $73 million on the program’s emergency shelter response by the end of this fiscal year, more than went into efforts after the 1989 earthquake: “This is the largest sheltering operation in county history, beyond even Loma Prieta.”

Hoppin told Lookout the program participants for both locations were informed of the imminent closures with 90 days’ notice, and received additional daily reminders from case managers, both verbally and in common areas, leading up to the closures. Those two locations: Watsonville’s Rodeway Inn, along Highway 1, which will cease operations on Friday, and the Oceana Inn on Water Street near downtown Santa Cruz, which will shutter June 24.

“This program has gone on long beyond the expiration of the federal funding for Project Roomkey, which expired last November,” Hoppin said. “We never got fully reimbursed [by the federal government] for the original Roomkey program — we’re out approximately $12 million, so we’ll have to make cuts elsewhere.”

The county has worked to rehouse Roomkey participants through both the Rehousing Wave program and through one-on-one communication with case managers. Hoppin credits the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz for providing 338 housing vouchers to program participants over the past two years. That work has helped participants move countywide, with some moving to permanent supportive housing and others to voucher-based units.

Leslie Goodfriend, senior health services manager with the county’s health services department, said each participant is assigned a case manager, who works with them to find more permanent housing solutions.

Currently, Goodfriend said, there are 15-25 participants at the Rodeway Inn who either haven’t worked with their case manager or haven’t been able to find housing. The county will not be able to find a place for them to go by Friday, but Goodfriend says the participants will receive backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.

Xavier Battice found a home in Santa Clara County last fall after being housed by Project Roomkey in Watsonville.
(Courtesy Project Roomkey)

“It is incredibly painful for us to be doing that — we wanted everybody to end up with housing,” she said. “However, we all know how hard it is in Santa Cruz … the housing case managers have encouraged people to look outside of the county for more opportunities to find apartments. Not everyone wants to do that.”

A handful of participants based at the Rodeway Inn told Lookout on Monday that the closure announcement was sudden.

“It’s just really crazy right now, I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said one resident, asking for anonymity. “Every agency makes it sound like I’ll get help, and then they’re gone.”

Another resident, who lives with her 81-year-old mother at the Rodeway, questions where the county funding toward homelessness has gone: “Why is there no funding for us to stay?”

One participant outside of the Rodeway Inn said she has moved six times across four separate motels since joining Project Roomkey in June 2020, which has been challenging, especially since she relies on her motorized wheelchair.

In March, the county launched the “Rehousing Wave” program, offering landlords financial incentives to house community...

“I feel very very beat — I’m supposed to have a housing navigator to help me, but no one has,” she said. “I’ve tried reaching out. Why am I not being helped?”

She noted that she has done her own housing search through Craigslist and listed ads, but has not found a solution for once the Rodeway closes.

Even if a participant is not rehoused by the program’s end, Goodfriend said, they will not fall out of the system, and will still work with a case manager.

As the county struggles to deal with its unhoused population, there are a few solutions that could come to fruition.

Consequently, the Rodeway Inn could have a second life. Although it will close Friday as part of Project Roomkey, the county submitted a Homekey project application for the property, which would convert the motel into permanent supportive housing. Homekey projects are part of the state of California’s unprecedented $12 billion commitment to solving homelessness. The county proposal, according to Hoppin, would convert 95 units into rooms and suites for extremely low-income residents, with an on-site manager, computer center, offices and meeting spaces.

The project would cost approximately $39 million; the county expects to hear by summer if the state will fund it. If the award is approved, Hoppin estimates that people would be able move in within eight months. It remains unclear if the current Project Roomkey residents at Rodeway would be given priority for those units when they’re available.

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