Apr 6, 2020
The Comfort Inn in East Oakland where "isolation" rooms have been reserved by the State of California for the County's unsheltered. Only a handful of rooms have been used since March 17.
On March 16 California Governor Gavin Newsom made a surprising claim during a televised Covid-19 update. Under his direction, the state intended to lease hotels to house California's homeless residents during the Covid-19 pandemic. Newsom was very specific about the claim, saying that the project would "bring people inside with a door, key and a lock.". And Newsom said he had already gotten started in Alameda County. He'd signed 6-week lease for two hotels in Oakland--the Comfort Inn and the Radisson, both owned by hotelier Nupen Patel.
Two weeks into that $73k/night lease, the Comfort Inn and Radisson are virtually empty. A little more than a dozen homeless county residents were housed in the two hotels by Friday, April 3--and the majority of those only in the previous two days. The Comfort Inn's 109 rooms had 5 residents as of April 1, according to County sources. The Radisson had no more than a dozen residents by Friday April 3.
Over a month into the declaration of a California state of emergency, local and state efforts to protect homeless people from the pandemic seem to be moving at a pace many think is unequal to the crisis.
Barriers to Operation Comfort
Its still unclear what's behind the under-utilization of the hotel programs, but there may be several barriers converging. For one thing, there's a strict criteria for admission into the isolation rooms at the Comfort Inn, which until last week, were the only hotel rooms available. A candidate for the Comfort Inn must be symptomatic, or have spent time with a person who has a documented positive infection with Covid-19.
And there are other barriers. Despite what would appear a welcome break from the streets for those that meet the criteria, candidates for the isolation program—now dubbed Operation Comfort—may be wary of the program, and some have reportedly turned it down or left after being admitted.
A service provider's March 31 email to Libby Schaaf's Homelessness Policy Director, Peter Radu, gives some insight into why rooms may be sitting empty. The email describes a client being told to leave items behind after they had been been admitted into the program. The service provider—whose name is withheld here because they did not agree to be cited—claimed that once selected for the program, the client had to enter it with the possessions they had with them. Isolation residents only get to leave the unit for "three scheduled, observed room exits," according to the email. An exit from the hotel property is seen as leaving the program.
According to the County, residents can only take a trash bag's worth of their personal property into the hotel. Participants considering entry to the isolation program must be prepared to leave most of their items on the street for a stay of uncertain duration and then "start over from scratch on the streets." In their email, the service provider laments that another client with symptoms who "probably could get in, but would lose almost everything if he did" is understandably reluctant to enter the program.
Despite the "Operation Comfort" branding, the isolation rooms seem directed more at the County's public health goals than at providing comfort or housing for the unsheltered—who are provided no guarantees that they won't exit the program with fewer resources than they entered.
At-Risk Unsheltered Housing Program at the Radisson Moving Slowly
The larger Radisson Hotel is the site of a different program intended as a preventative measure for elderly and at-risk unsheltered county residents. Unlike Operation Comfort, where a list of dozens of organizations can refer isolation candidates, there is no referral process for the Radisson—the County is the sole arbiter of who will stay at there and that process is apparently not public. Though the bar for entry may be as exclusionary as Operation Comfort according to the at-risk health criteria, the Radisson site rules seem to be somewhat more lax than isolation units.
The intake process has been a trickle since it began on Thursday, more than two weeks after the start of the lease and three weeks before it ends at the end of April. At the current rate of intake—a dozen residents in two days—the Radisson project could conceivably run its entire lease and not come close to filling the hotel [though it can continue month to month if Nupen Patel, the owner of both hotels, agrees].
The cost to the State for renting the mostly empty buildings since the lease began has been sizable. Now 1/3 of the way through a 6-week lease lifespan, the state has paid a little over $1 million to reserve the Radisson and another 367k for the Comfort Inn since March 17—a total of $1.38 million. The nightly rates are $186 in both hotels—in excess of the nightly rate of most of the rooms, especially the Comfort Inn, which in the past has not had a listed room for more than $160.00/night, according to the hotel's web reservation system.
Advocate Concerns About the Pace
Service providers and advocates want to give the benefit of the doubt to the organizations and individuals working on the hotel housing programs, and some think the very idea of the hotels are a welcome departure from previous government homelessness interventions.
Heather Freinkel, of the Homeless Action Center, is supportive of the efforts and agrees with the logic of prioritizing those who have tested positive or are showing symptoms. " But she also notes the slow pace for housing at-risk groups. "The hotels are not yet being made available to vulnerable, but not yet affected, groups - which I think is urgently needed in order to keep people safe before they get sick," she said.
Homeless advocacy groups like the East Oakland Collective and the Village have expressed alarm at the lack of progress in housing the homeless in the reserved hotels during the pandemic. Last week, EOC, the Village and other community groups that work with the homeless urged City and County officials to move faster to fill the hotel rooms with both vulnerable populations and those in need of isolation. Advocates worry about the apparent lack of urgency reflected in the low number of incoming residents for both hotel programs. As if to highlight the concerns, the Radisson program has apparently taken a weekend break for intake after its first two days in operation, and will only intake participants during weekdays.
County Contemplates Additional 4,750 "Isolation" Room Hotel Project
Alameda County estimates it needs nearly 5,000 additional hotel rooms to address the public health crisis for the County's unsheltered and other vulnerable populations. But as the County begins to take action, even these efforts seem to be taking a slow path through the bureaucracy.
The County completed a Request for Proposals process with local hotel owners for an additional 4,750 set of hotel rooms in late March, and the RFP describes a much larger spectrum of needs than the current projects at the East Oakland hotels. The RFP specifies rooms for residents who are either symptomatic or have spent time with confirmed positive Covid-19 cases. But the target population includes both the homeless and residents of communal dwellings that share bathrooms and kitchens. The RFP also outlines the need for rooms for an unspecified number of at risk and elder residents, but it doesn't specify if these would be isolation units, or have preventive goals. Notably, 750 of the rooms would be set aside for "essential workers" who need to isolate.
ALCO's requirements seem to have been given more forethought than Newsom's plan, though. The contract guarantees job and health security for current employees, a detail which the Newsom contract gave short shrift. And the County vision also is more deliberate about the lease price per room. Under the contract, according to the RFP, the County would agree to a two-tiered price structure—a nightly price for keeping the rooms empty and ready, and another for when rooms are in use for isolation. The funding, in part, will come out of a $3 million state grant for emergency homeless interventions—part of California's 150 million dollar state-wide grant for local homelessness response to Covid-19.
The project and its timeline are still vague, though. Normal rules for accepting the lowest, responsive bid may not apply during the state-wide state of emergency. And the contract(s) would likely still require a vote by the Board of Supervisors—and none are on the agenda for the April 7 meeting.
In an oral report to the BOS on March 31, Colleen Chawla, ALCO's Health Care Services Agency Director, claimed the per-unit rate, including food, would be around $150. But in an April 1 phone interview, Rachel Johnson, the Alameda County Real Property Program Manager in charge of the bid process could not confirm the $150/room rate and did not know what information Chawla's comment was based on.
A stated goal of the contract is to throw a lifeline to the "hospitality industry." The RFP calls this a "win-win" for the hotels. Those selected for the contract, the County argues, can use it to generate "a revenue stream in excess of what the private market can offer during this time, and ensuring work and wages to the County’s hotel/motel labor force to the maximum extent possible." But unlike the Newsom contract structure, the RFP stipulates that the bid be representative of "quite low" March, 2020 hotel revenues.
Trailers Upon Trailers
Another portion of Newsom's state funding came to Oakland in the form of 45 "FEMA" trailers this week [out of approximately 91 total spread throughout the County]. Oakland's trailer project will purportedly be set up on the "Homebase" parking lot off of Hegenberger in East Oakland. Its unclear if the trailers are for at-risk groups, those in need of isolation or both.
The appearance of new trailers brought up uncomfortable questions for the Schaaf administration which had partnered on a very similar project with 15 trailers earlier this year. After a media-focused rollout that suggested the trailers would house homeless youth and families on the Homebase lot, the trailers disappeared from the lot and went into storage after the reporters left. Despite claims made to and by the East Bay Times and SF Chronicle, the City didn't have concrete plans to use the trailers at the time. The trailers weren't heard about again until early March, when the legislative item to consider a lease for Roots and Covenant House to utilize them on city and state land was scheduled for an Oakland council committee meeting.
In an East bay Times article published Thursday, Radu seemed to indicated the trailers were in limbo after the March committee meeting was cancelled. But the day after the EBT article was published, the trailers appeared on the Council agenda for a suddenly scheduled April 7 City Council meeting. The leases and contracts are for limited programs on city and state land. The legislation does not contain funding.
Its unclear why the City did not use the existing 15 trailers to aid in housing unsheltered populations in need of isolation at the beginning of the crisis. With the current orders in place, its also unclear when Roots or Covenant House will be able to use the trailers—each trailer is intended for multiple residents in both programs.
Vague Timelines Ahead
Amid urgent pronouncements and a still-worrisome projected curve in local cases, the City, County and State's timelines for housing a significant number of homeless people remain vague. For one, Newsom's Oakland hotel program contracts end in 3 weeks, with no guarantee they will be renewed. And the County's contract process for 4,750 rooms is not yet on the horizon.
Despite this week's trailer announcement, the City of Oakland has not given a timeline for implementation of the 45 FEMA trailers from the State. At the time of this writing, there are only 23 trailers stored side by side on the Homebase lot, with no evidence of infrastructure staging or works under way.
*The Alameda County Joint Information Center was contacted for this story but no representative any Alameda County agency had responded by the time of this writing.
Update 1, April 6, 2020: The remainder of the trailers were moved on to the lot on Monday, one by one. There's still very little activity there by Monday afternoon except placing what appears to be fenceposts.
Update 2, April 9, 2020:
++Days after I published this article, the public information officer for Alameda County, Jerri Randrup finally replied by email to my questions. She tells me that at this point, there are "5 dozen" residents between the Comfort and Radisson, but she refused to specify the exact total, and wouldn't break the numbers down by site. She also wouldn't give a cumulative figure which would indicate how many have left and are leaving the program soon after arriving.
++A staffer at an ALCO Board of Supervisors meeting of April 7, 2020 confirmed that there are currently no contracts yet being negotiated between the County and any hotel owner for the "4,750 rooms" that were advertised in local news stories. It was also confirmed that the pricing of the hotel rooms has not been determined, contrary to the same news reports. Its not clear when the rooms could be available, but the contracts would have to be approved at a BOS meeting, and the next one is April 14 [but still no sign of the contracts].
++The Newsom/Schaaf trailers have arrived at the "Home Base" parking lot off of Hegenberger. There are currently about 67 trailers on the lot, but they are simply parked on the lot in a row. Starting Monday, April 6, 2020, a 2-4 person crew of contractors began placing fence posts along an area of the lot--presumably the future location of the trailer intervention. The fencing isn't yet complete, and seems likely to go on thru next week.
According to a video-tweet by Mayor Libby Schaaf, the trailer isolation project won't open until May 1, 2020--two days before the current county shelter in place order ends. Council fast-tracked a resolution to grant leases on a city lot [the Homebase parking lot, in fact] and Caltrans property to Covenant House and Roots Community Health for the 15 "emergency" trailers that Newsom donated to Schaaf in January. But during the April 7 virtual meeting, Oakland's Director of Human Services, Sarah Bedford, admitted that the programs can't start until after Covid-19 orders are removed. It doesn't appear that the City will use the additional 15 trailers for the Covid-19 separation project.
Bedford also expressed concern that both projects--which envisioned shared living quarters in the trailers--may no longer be viable post-Covid. The votes would still require a second reading, and the Council is not announcing meetings in advance during the existence of a City Adminstrator's executive order. *
++Meanwhile, Schaaf has unofficially stated an intention to lease hotel rooms for homeless during Covid-19 with the goal of eventual acquisition of the hotels. But according to my research, the City may already own a 24 unit SRO that was authorized by Council for purchase with KK funding last Summer. The City Administrator at that time claimed that the sale would have closed by November, 2019 during that Council session, but the sale was predicated on the current owner, a notorious SRO flipper, Sterling Heatley, finishing the refurbishment of the hotel before handing it over. The City paid [or will pay] Heatley $3.1 million for the hotel he purchased for $600k. Heatley still has an open permit on the property--its not clear if the City took ownership.
Update 3, April 14, 2020: someone sent me this document, the checklist agreement clients must sign to stay at the Comfort Inn. Strict rules that give some insight into why unsheltered individuals might not want to stay, even if they are Covid-positive.
Starting on April 12, Abode and ALCO, the service providers at the Radisson's Operation Safer Ground, stepped up their intake, according to ALCO's Health Care Services agency director, Colleen Chawla [at the ALCO Budget meeting April 7, 2020] and others with insight into the process. The program expects to reach maximum occupancy at the Radisson by the end of the week of April, 12.
Also, at a Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting today, Chawla confirmed that the potential 4,750 hotel rooms that the County received bids for won't be explored until the occupancy at the Radisson is reached. Its not clear what criteria would then be followed, or if those rooms would be pursued automatically or as part of another program/process.
The fencing project at the Home Base lot has remarkably continued into this week and may not be done yet.
City spokesperson Karen Boyd confirmed that no residents of Oakland's community cabins have been moved into either the Radisson or Comfort Inn as of Friday, April 10, 2020.
Its been confirmed by the owner that the City's purchase of the Silver Dollar Hotel was never finalized and may never be, despite the allocation of the $3 million in July, 2019. More to come on that.
Update 4, April 19, 2020:
I've received confirmation from the ALCO Emergency Coordination Center's PIO, Jerri Applegate Randrup, that the County is struggling to activate any of the potential 4,750 hotels it procured bids for in late March. No contracts have been signed for any of the hotels identified in the RFP process.
According to Randrup:
"Negotiations of this scale often take weeks to ensure a fair bidding process for local businesses. We anticipated concluding negotiations and entering into contracts as early as last week and this did not happen due to forces beyond our control. Planning for wrap-around services, safety protocols, food, security, and transportation is ongoing, so that referrals can be made quickly upon the execution of these agreements."
Update 5, April 26, 2020:
A month after ALCO put out an RFP requesting bids from local hotels for up to 4,750 rooms through Project Roomkey, the County has finally got some contracts to bring before the Board of Supervisors this Tuesday. Three new hotels, geographically spread in Berkeley, Alameda and Oakland would add 262 rooms to the 393 rooms currently being used as both Isolation housing and housing for medically vulnerable homeless populations.
In its hotel search, however, ALCO also seeks rooms for those living in communal settings and for workforce residents who may need to shelter away from family. Its not clear whether the new rooms would only be used if the current available rooms at the Radisson and Comfort are used up. Recently, County officials have expressed a preference to begin to house people who live in congregate and communal settings pre-emptively.
Comments from Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley suggest that the Berkeley hotel will primarily serve residents of the City its located in, also in contrast to the Radisson/Comfort, which have served all of ALCO, including Berkeley. If that's the case, its likely that the 51 rooms in Alameda will also specifically serve Alameda residents. This would mean that Oakland would have a net gain of only 98 potential rooms.
The contract with the three hotels marks ALCO's first solo Project Roomkey negotiation. Although the contracts for the Comfort and Radisson were initially meant to be transferred to the County, the State never did so and remained the signatory on the contract.
ALCO's contracts for the Marina Inn/Alameda and The Quality Inn/Oakland differ markedly from the State's contract with Radisson/Comfort. The County has two payment levels: the primary one is to reserve and keep the rooms available; the second is for each room that's occupied--this is a higher rate that includes three meals a day for the occupant.
The contract with the La Quinta/Berkeley is slightly different from the Quality Inn and Marina Inn contracts. It has only one rate for both occupied and unoccupied rooms, includes no food and has limited housekeeping. The La Quinta contract also specifies a 3 month commitment from the state--the others don't.
The contracts for all three hotels are month to month and start May 1. The County anticipates continuing the contracts for up to 6 months and is allocating necessary funds for that time period--a total of about 7.7 million dollar including cleaning/restoration fees. Up to 75% of the total would be paid by FEMA, and 25% by the County. Its conceivable that ALCO would use few rooms in the end for housing people under this structure beyond simply keeping the rooms available. Its not known whether more contracts will be seen in the coming weeks--but all of them would have to be authorized at a Board of Supervisors meeting. Stay tuned.
*Clarification: The City cancelled all scheduled committee and council meetings on its web legislative calendar starting in mid-March. The City did not resume publicly calendaring meetings in advance from mid March to mid-April. Additionally, during the City's state of emergency and executive order, the City is not required to give 10 day notice for agenda meetings, as would be normally applicable according to ordinance.
The City seems to have gone back to regular calendaring of a limited kind in mid-April, with agendas appearing with 72 hour notice.