As many people adjust to life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Alameda County is leasing hotels in an attempt to assist homeless communities facing an unprecedented pandemic of their own.
On June 30, Alameda County entered an agreement with local hotels under California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Project Roomkey.” Under the initiative, unoccupied hotel and motel rooms would house medically vulnerable, high-risk homeless individuals to combat COVID-19’s potential to spread. People eligible to access the rooms include unhoused individuals over the age of 65 or those who have tested positive for COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization.
Hotels meeting Alameda County’s criteria are provided funding for six months. The Quality Inn Berkeley will be leasing its 29 rooms beginning July 20 and provide meals and housekeeping services for those it is accommodating.
“It supports people who are in need of this, you know, housing, currently, and it supports us as a business owner because this pandemic has obviously dropped our occupancy,” said Shailendra Devdhara, owner of the Quality Inn Berkeley.
According to Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, one of the city’s main goals in confronting COVID-19 is aiding the needs of vulnerable populations, and Berkeley is supportive of the initiative.
“We continue to remain actively engaged in assisting homeless individuals and encampments,” Elgstrand said in an email.
Homeless advocacy groups serving Berkeley argue that the initiative provides temporary aid, while allowing additional problems to occur instead.
According to Andrea Henson, former lead organizer of the “Where do we go?” homeless advocacy campaign, COVID-19 created multiple unaddressed issues for Berkeley’s unhoused population.
“Where do we go?” represents Berkeley’s four largest homeless encampments and provides necessities such as tents, disinfectants and portable toilets contributed by surrounding organizations and volunteers, according to Henson.
In the initial months since the onset of quarantine, Henson felt that homeless populations did not receive palpable assistance from Alameda County.
“I felt like the county was nonexistent,” Henson said.
For those eligible to self-isolate in a hotel room, Henson said hotels were either inaccessible or inadequate to realistically accommodate homeless communities’ needs.
According to Henson, Project Roomkey prioritizes homeless people who have access to shelters, as they are able to return to those shelters after they finish self-isolation. Those living on the streets pose a greater risk to other members in their campsites after their 14-day stay at a hotel is over.
Henson said she worked with a woman who, after self-isolating at an Oakland hotel, returned to her campsites torn down and was left to fend for herself.
“You don’t just take someone off the street and give them a hotel, and then throw them back out on the street again with nothing,” Henson said.
The city of Berkeley previously drafted a deal with the La Quinta Inn in Berkeley that eventually fell through. Henson stressed that homeless people do not have the luxury of waiting for additional shelter options with the extenuating circumstances they face.
“When you’re sleeping on the street, you have to think about tonight. You have to think about being sick, tonight. You have to think about where you’re going to go to the bathroom, like in an hour,” Henson said. “You have to think about eating today, in a pandemic. You don’t have three months.”