As Project Roomkey comes to an end, work continues to find permanent housing for the most vulnerable
Project Roomkey helped house hundreds of people in Santa Cruz County who were experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, but federal funding is due to run out by year’s end. Those involved say they are working as hard as they can to find stable housing for as many people as possible.
Xavier Battice, 60, has traversed the country, living everywhere from New York and Pennsylvania to Colorado and Nevada.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Battice — who suffers from a lung disease — was living in a tent at the National Guard Armory in Santa Cruz, and he knew he needed to find more stable shelter.
“I’m tired now,” he said. “I’m not moving no more.”
Last November, Santa Cruz County moved Battice into a hotel in Watsonville. It was just one of several hotels the county is operating as a part of Project Roomkey, a state initiative to give individuals experiencing homelessness safe, non-congregate shelter during the pandemic.
Many suffer from physical or mental illnesses or were displaced by the 2020 CZU fire. With a roof over their heads, many people were able to access better medical care and work toward finding stable housing.
But this program will soon come to an end. With federal funding for the hotels scheduled to expire by the end of the year, the race is on for Santa Cruz County to find permanent housing for nearly 250 people still living in hotels.
According to program coordinator Malachi Green, “It’s all hands on deck.” In a region notorious for its lack of affordable housing, the county has partnered with Abode Services and Housing Matters to deploy case managers to dig up housing for hotel residents.
Most of the residents still await stable housing, but Battice is one of the lucky ones. Last week, after months of searching for housing with Abode Services, Battice finally moved into an apartment of his own in Santa Clara County.
“I was overjoyed,” Battice said. “But I was praying for all the other people [at the hotel]. If I could take the whole world, I would.”
‘You can’t house everyone’
Santa Cruz County originally operated six hotels through Project Roomkey. Now county staff run five — three in the city of Santa Cruz and two in Watsonville.
Among the 58 California counties, Santa Cruz secured the 10th-highest number of rooms, according to a state database. More than 70% of those rooms are still occupied, the database shows.
Statewide, Project Roomkey has been funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now reimbursing providers of non-congregate shelters until the end of the year. But for much of the pandemic, funding was uncertain as FEMA reauthorized the reimbursement program month by month.
“The original goal was just to give people a place to shelter,” Green said. “But now, because (funding) was extended, and it kept going, a lot of people were able to connect to resources that they didn’t have the time to (connect to) before.”
One resident at a Santa Cruz hotel who goes by LeRoy described Project Roomkey as a “turning point” in his life. He said he had been homeless on and off in Santa Cruz for the past 30 years until he was referred to a Roomkey hotel.
“I was able to get stimulus checks, a driver’s license and buy a new car,” said LeRoy, who as of late July was waiting to get housing with a Section 8 voucher.
“It’s hard because landlords don’t want to rent to us,” he added.
As of Oct. 14, 58 people had been placed in housing from county hotels, receiving support from housing vouchers and/or the county’s landlord matching program. This initiative — part of the county’s “Rehousing Wave” — offers financial incentives, guaranteed on-time monthly payments and other benefits to landlords willing to partner with Abode Services and Housing Matters to address homelessness.
Still, getting landlords to sign on remains a challenge, and barriers pile up for people who have experienced homelessness when it comes to renting.
“Santa Cruz is extremely hard to find a place to live even if you have great credit, if you have good references and if you have a job,” said Green, who nearly experienced homelessness himself. ”I’m really impressed with all the case managers and how they’ve navigated that, because they’ve been able to pull it off, at least in many instances.”
As the end of the year draws near, hotel closures are imminent. According to Robert Ratner, director of the county’s Housing for Health division, staff are planning a phased ending to the program, with specific hotels closing by the end of October, mid-November and mid-December.
The county and its partners’ goal remains getting everyone in an affordable permanent home, even if that happens after the program ends. In addition to the case management services, residents are able to transfer to other hotels that remain open, obtain time-limited hotel vouchers or get a referral to emergency shelters with Housing Matters or the Salvation Army.
As a last resort, the county is giving residents resources — such as tents — to sleep safely outside. This is happening only if the other options “are not available or desired,” according to Ratner.
But, Battice — the former Roomkey resident who found housing — said he’s worried many people will just end up right back where they started.
“They came from the streets, and they’re going right back to the streets,” he said.
Many among the Roomkey staff, employed by the county, wish the program could go longer.
“It’s a little heartbreaking for all of us,” said Adriana Johnson, a program coordinator who described the initiative as eye-opening and the “most rewarding” work she’s done.
“There’s more that we can do,” she said. “And I’m very proud of what we have done.”
Looking forward, the county is exploring options for more permanent shelter for the unhoused population. One option is Project Homekey, the state initiative that came on the heels of Roomkey.
Through this program, local entities receive funding from the state to actually purchase hotels and motels, rather than just renting rooms temporarily. This way, the state can provide emergency shelter options and add to its affordable housing stock at the same time.
In its first round, the program housed over 8,000 people statewide since the summer of 2020.
Ratner said Santa Cruz County is exploring three projects for Project Homekey funding, though it has yet to submit any applications.
“In my view, there’s been too many shelter programs that are temporary in the county,” Ratner said. “When you have to move a program around multiple times, it’s really difficult to get good outcomes and retain staff.”
Ratner likes that programs like Project Homekey are more permanent, and said he hopes to continue to see projects of this kind.
As he puts it, “This kind of investment that was made during the pandemic, we need it (to be) ongoing and long term.”