California Rolls Out Plan To Put Homeless People Into Vacant Hotel Rooms To Protect Them From Coronavirus

'Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,' says Governor Gavin Newsom.

a homeless person and their belongings
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'Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,' says Governor Gavin Newsom.

California is enacting a plan to put homeless people into empty hotel rooms in order to protect the vulnerable population from the coronavirus, CBS News reports.

The homeless are particularly at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Many homeless peoples’ bodies are ravaged by years of drug abuse and alcohol abuse, to say nothing of the lack of adequate nutrition and medical care, as well as their exposure to the elements.

Meanwhile, with the travel industry effectively idled, hotel and motel rooms across the country sit empty.

California officials believe that those empty hotel rooms could be put to use housing the homeless during this time of increased vulnerability for that population, and at least some hotel operators across the state agree.

Under the auspices of Project Roomkey, which Governor Gavin Newsom revealed on Friday in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state has claimed ownership of 6,867 vacant hotel and motel rooms, with a view towards acquiring 15,000 more.

The project works like this: the state would claim temporary ownership of the rooms and move “extremely vulnerable” homeless people into them. There, they would receive meals and custodial care. FEMA would reimburse state and local governments for up to 75 percent of the cost of the program.

383367 19: Night falls on a "crack alley", so-called for its 24-hour drug trading, especially in cheap crack cocaine, December 11, 2000 in Los Angeles, CA. Non-paying strangers are met with great suspicion by homeless gang members. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
  David McNew / Newsmakers/Getty Images

“By helping the most vulnerable homeless individuals off the street and into isolation, California can slow the spread of COVID-19 through homeless populations, lower the number of people infected and protect critical health care resources,” Newsom said.

However, advocates for the homeless have found that talk of moving the homeless into vacant hotel rooms has failed to produce much in the way of results.

For example, two weeks ago, Newsom had suggested acquiring 50,000 hotel rooms for the homeless, while so far the state has only acquired around 7,000. What’s more, as of this writing, only 900 homeless people have been moved into hotel rooms.

Whether the number of hotel rooms California acquires is 15,000 or 50,000, it’s still not enough; an estimated 150,000 people are believed to be homeless in the state.

Outside of California, cities are responding to COVID-19 spreading in the homeless population in different ways.

In Seattle, for example, officials are taking a similar approach to California’s moving the homeless into vacant hotel rooms, as The Seattle Times reports. Already, the city has moved 400 homeless people into hotels, as of April 3.

In Denver, however, advocates for the homeless complain that officials are doing nothing at all, according to The Denver Post. Homeless people in that city cram into tightly-packed shelters and are continuing to gather in public.