The Street Medicine team provides health care services to the homeless and unsheltered populations in the Coachella Valley. (Photo: Courtesy CSUSB)

The $150 million Project Roomkey program was launched during the spring in a frantic bid to keep at least some of California’s massive numbers of homeless safer from COVID-19 by sheltering them in hotel rooms. Some seven months later, the program is winding down and thousands of those who benefited from months off the streets face a return to that condition, just as the pandemic is surging across the nation.

While there have been glimmers of hope that emerged from this effort, overall it seems this was another well-intentioned experiment that fell far short of what truly was needed when it comes to changing the trajectory of life for too many fellow Californians who have no roof over their heads.

That is a shame. As a society, we must find ways to do better.

As reported by The Desert Sun’s Nicole Hayden, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey in April with the goal of getting those most vulnerable to COVID-19 — seniors, pregnant women, others with underlying health conditions — off the streets.

On the plus side, 17% of the state’s homeless population — or about 28,000 people — received shelter under the program. Of those, 5% have moved on to a permanent home.

We’d like to celebrate, but realistically, this “glimmer” isn’t much in the way of good news — especially as Project Roomkey funding ends with the expiration of 2020. According to Hayden’s reporting, that means perhaps 12,000 or more currently accommodated under the program face a return to homelessness.


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On the minus side, it seems the program started from the bottom of a steep hill and was destined to fail — at least if one viewed as part of the goal the shift of as many as possible to permanent housing.

Why? Well, for starters we think it wasn’t built for success. Each of the caseworkers dealing with Project Roomkey beneficiaries served an average of 36 clients. That’s about double the number they should have been managing, one told The Desert Sun’s Hayden.

In addition, too many obstacles existed pre-COVID-19 when it comes to the chronically homeless securing permanent shelter, and simply booking hotel rooms for a time wasn’t going to remove these hurdles. Among them: a lack of affordable housing; long waiting lists for those units that do exist; and reluctance of landlords to accept homeless who manage to secure a government-issued housing voucher as tenants.

An ancillary program, Project Homekey, aims to offer such stable housing options to at least some of the state’s homeless. Indeed, some counties expect to have their Project Homekey converted motel units ready for occupancy by year’s end — in time for the end of Project Roomkey’s funding.

Even among the relative few who’ve been helped by Project Roomkey, however, an even much smaller number will end up benefitting from Homekey. In Riverside County, for example, the largest Project Homekey site isn’t expected to open until spring 2023. That purchase and remodeling of the Ivy Palm motel in Palm Springs is being funded by a $4.25 million state grant awarded to the county and $3 million from the city.

The transformation of the Ivy into 81 permanent supportive housing apartments will cost about $120,000 per unit.

Believe it or not, in relative terms the cost of the Ivy project isn’t bad.

An affordable housing project of 105 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments was announced last week for Coachella. The price tag of the Pueblo Viejo Villas: $47 million. The development will include a SunBus transit hub and renewable energy sources and other design features that make it the city’s first Net Zero Energy Project, which means that it produces as much energy as it uses.

Still, pouring $47 million of mostly city, county, state and federal funds, grants and tax credits into a project that will bring just 105 units online — about half which will be just one-bedroom apartments — seems to stretch the concept of “affordable.”

Despite the various amenities included in the development, at a “raw” average of nearly $450,000 per actual household unit, it’s hard to imagine this as an “affordable” model for tackling California’s immense housing crisis. That said, it is laudable that these lower-rent units are slated for realistically affordable pricing ($440 to $980 per month) for the working poor who struggle to make ends meet as they also contribute their tax dollars to the greater social good.

Which brings us back to Project Roomkey and our disappointment.

Dedicating $150 million to temporarily house 1 in 6 of California’s homeless for a few short months might have been heroic during the initial chaos of the pandemic, but in the end simply is emblematic of the Golden State’s intransigent homelessness crisis. Months later, Project Roomkey amounted to a vast sum spent on yet another temporary salve, but no real cure.

We admit we don’t have the answers. Still, unless and until our leaders find ways to actually make “affordable” once again mean something closer to reality when it comes to housing costs in California, our homelessness crisis will only get worse.


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