On March 18, a new Building Bridges blog series was launched to share solutions from other communities and highlight key interventions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week’s blog post focused on how communities evaluate and report performance on the housing instability and homelessness services system in response to COVID-19.
In response to COVID-19, communities across the United States, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, have turned to non-congregate settings like hotels to help reduce pressures on emergency shelters; provide alternate, safe spaces in which people experiencing homelessness can isolate or quarantine; and help local businesses by filling vacancies. The degree to which communities have established partnerships with local hotels varies widely; some communities have just started the process to secure the first community hotel, whereas others have comprehensive networks statewide.
The focus has understandably been on entry into non-congregate shelter; now, some communities are considering what exits from non-congregate shelter could look like.
This new Building Bridges series looks at community responses to COVID-19 using a prospicient lens: What short-term, community responses can become long-term, systemic solutions? Which immediate interventions can effectively and efficiently address the structural issues that lead to housing instability and homelessness? What “new thing” can evolve into “business as usual?” And what is needed to create healthy, stable communities permanently?
This week’s blog post is dedicated to how communities are exploring options to transform gains in temporary housing capacity during the response to COVID-19 into permanent housing stock following the pandemic.
FROM HOTELS TO PROVIDE TEMPORARY, SAFE, SHELTER…
A decrease in travel as a result of shelter-in-place orders, in combination with the need to provide alternative non-congregate shelter, made newly-unoccupied hotel and motel rooms an ideal option to support local businesses; put people back to work; and ensure the safety of high-risk populations. Even better, this new arrangement came almost fully funded through support from FEMA. This blog post will focus on two examples: North Carolina and California.
North Carolina was one of the first states to receive approval for non-congregate shelter using FEMA assistance. North Carolina applied on April 1 and received notification of approval on April 6, 2020. The North Carolina Interagency Council for Coordinating Homeless Programs has identified specific focus areas to drive the design for assistance and programming: protection in current homeless settings to increase health and safety in congregate settings; temporary non-congregate shelter locations with quarantine and isolation options for people who are symptomatic of, or test positive for, COVID-19; recovery or care options for people experiencing homelessness with non-COVID health issues to preserve hospital beds; options for high-risk individuals to take social distancing measures; and housing stability so that households can follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
According to the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services, North Carolina has set a goal to obtain 16,500 non-congregate shelter units statewide. The state is funding the 25% of costs not covered by FEMA. Eligible populations include: people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and need to be isolated, but do not require hospitalization; people exposed to COVID-19 and identified by a healthcare professional as needing quarantine but not hospitalization; and people in need of social distancing as determined by public health officials. The individuals in this last category are generally part of higher-risk groups, such as those over age 65 or with certain underlying medical conditions.
California was the first state to receive approval for non-congregate sheltering using FEMA assistance. Project Roomkey, as the statewide program is known, has a heavy local emphasis with city and county officials taking the lead in identifying participants and setting up hotel rooms. The state government provided technical assistance with real estate and business recruitment; hotel/motel identification; occupancy agreement negotiations; public health guidance; other legal agreements; supports for connection to telehealth, data, and tracking; and funding.
On March 18, 2020, Governor Newsom announced that $100M would be allocated to local governments and Continuums of Care (CoCs) for shelter support and emergency housing in response to COVID-19; and $50M would be made available in occupancy agreements to secure hotels, motels, and other housing (including trailers). Most Project Roomkey expenditures are federally reimbursable under FEMA. California has approval for these expenditures through April 30, 2020 with the opportunity to request extensions. Project Roomkey plans to use the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) as the mechanism to establish eligibility and document all activities for FEMA reimbursement. In addition, the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management releases a daily incident management report with information on the number of hotels participating and the capacity and utilization of rooms in LAC.
As of April 12, California obtained over 10,000 hotel units on its way to a statewide goal of 15,000 units. Eligible populations include: people who are medically “high risk;” people who have been exposed to COVID-19; and people who have tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to Project Roomkey, California also provides “medical sheltering,” which provides temporary quarantine and isolation housing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Medical sheltering is provided to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and need to isolate and shelter in place; people who are symptomatic and need to be isolated while waiting for test results; and people experiencing homelessness who are not symptomatic but have been exposed to COVID-19 positive individuals.
Project Roomkey sites vary, but there are several, common elements: 24/7 private security; staffing that includes site managers, case managers, disaster service workers, and nursing staff; daily meals; medical monitoring; and a resident code of conduct, which outlines expectations for those participating in the program. Prior to entry into the hotel, individuals are screened for COVID-19 symptoms. After intake, both individuals and staff are screened for symptoms, including a temperature check at least two times per day. If a person begins to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, site staff will activate emergency protocols and transfer the client to the appropriate location for further care.
…TO PERMANENT HOUSING SOLUTIONS TO PROMOTE PUBLIC HEALTH
Ensuring that there is enough emergency housing options available in response to COVID-19 saves lives by slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus; minimizes strain on health care system capacity; and protects medically high-risk individuals who have no safe space to shelter-in-place. However, this intervention is, by definition, an emergency option. What happens to individuals and families in 3-, 6-, or 12 months from now? What happens to the hotels and motels?
As part of its framework, the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services has outlined several strategies for the period of “post-non-congregate sheltering.” These include rapid re-housing using existing and/or CARES Act resources to move individuals from hotels to housing. In California, partners in Project Roomkey are collaborating to develop a comprehensive plan for the people who are receiving temporary assistance. The goal is to ensure that they do not return to the streets when they exit Project Roomkey. Organizations will use existing shelter capacity to move people into an interim housing environment or explore other temporary housing options. California plans to build on the successes from the program by expanding shelter capacity and maintaining business partnerships to address their affordable housing shortage; the new version of the project is being referred to as “Project Roomkey 2.0.” Counties are also considering the purchase of hotel and motels for conversion to permanent supportive housing.
This blog post highlights yet another short-term solution that can easily become a long-term strategy to address the pre-existing conditions of housing instability and homelessness. Programs like Project Roomkey in California are keeping local businesses open and people employed, with local tax revenue also supporting the community during the pandemic. They also will be helpful to communities when combatting future waves of the novel coronavirus or other disasters. Communities can take these efforts even further to support local businesses and promote public health in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
For example, the City Council in Missoula, Montana recently approved the purchase of a motel that was already being used for COVID quarantine and isolation. After the pandemic, the City plans to demolish the motel and redevelop the property for permanent affordable housing. To finance the purchase, which is located in an Opportunity Zone, the City used Tax Increment Financing. The property is walkable, near schools and medical facilities, and connected to transit. Once developed, the new property will be mixed-use and mixed-income.
Future posts in this series will continue to focus on this important shift from short-term intervention to long-term implementation. Check back here each week to find out more.
To access COVID-19-related news and resources related to housing instability and homelessness, visit the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hub for Housing Information related to COVID-19.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.