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California Follows Through On Plan To Create Permanent Housing For The Homeless

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the pandemic hit, states leased hotel rooms for people with no place to stay. If you're supposed to stay home, you need a home. Hotel residents in many states will have to clear out by September as FEMA reimbursements end. But California will keep some people in place. Erin Baldassari of KQED reports the plan evolved from a pandemic measure to an attack on homelessness itself.

ERIN BALDASSARI, BYLINE: Michele Griffin Young is 73. And she's been homeless on and off for the better part of the last decade. Before the pandemic, she was living in her car in Marin County, north of San Francisco, with her diabetic son, John Young.

MICHELE GRIFFIN YOUNG: He was diagnosed only 3 years old. And we've been pretty much glued at the hip ever since.

BALDASSARI: Living in the car made it especially hard to keep his insulin cold.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: We just have to go to the store and get ice, you know, packs of ice, and put it in the cooler.

BALDASSARI: As the coronavirus started to spread, California scrambled to get thousands of homeless seniors and people with medical conditions into hotels and motels. Michele and John moved to a Travelodge. Michele says getting the room was a lifeline.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: We had a refrigerator to keep the insulin in. And we had a microwave. We could heat up whatever we needed to eat.

TOMIQUIA MOSS: We had commercial hotels that were not being utilized because of the pandemic. And we had a public health crisis. Where our unhoused neighbors were most vulnerable.

BALDASSARI: Tomiquia Moss is the founder and CEO of the policy group All Home. And she says state officials were worried the virus would tear through shelters and tent encampments.

MOSS: So there was a different sense of urgency because of the confluence of those two things.

BALDASSARI: At the program's height, it was renting more than 16,000 hotel rooms throughout the state. But those were always meant to be temporary. And the question was, what would happen to all the people when the program ended? So in June last year, the state launched Homekey to buy some of those sites and turn them into permanent housing. Marin County bought an 18-room hotel called Casa Buena.

I see you got some books.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: A few (laughter). Detective novels, mostly.

BALDASSARI: That's where Michele Griffin Young and John Young moved earlier this year. It's a two-story building on a small side street next to the freeway.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: I mean, there was food every morning and food every night and our own showers and bathrooms. And everything was just fantastic.

BALDASSARI: She's lived at the Casa Buena for about four months now. The idea of turning hotels into housing had been talked about for years, says Jason Elliott, who works for California Governor Gavin Newsom on housing policy.

JASON ELLIOTT: Everyone always says, I wish we could. And the pandemic provided us with an opportunity to go from I wish we could to we will.

BALDASSARI: Elliott says Homekey created enough housing for more than 8,000 people spread across 94 sites throughout the state, most of it permanent, all in less than a year.

ELLIOTT: So we're talking about a fraction of the time. And we're talking about a fraction of the cost.

BALDASSARI: They did it by cutting through a lot of red tape and using existing buildings, mostly hotels and motels, but also vacation rentals and a college dormitory, single-family houses and office buildings.

DIANE YENTEL: They took a bit of a leap of faith there, meeting the urgency of the moment.

BALDASSARI: Diane Yentel is the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And she says it's already become a national model, with Washington, Oregon and the city of Baltimore following in California's footsteps.

YENTEL: And in doing so, they set a standard that other states and cities - some - have tried to meet.

BALDASSARI: Congress recently approved $5 billion to turn hotels across the country into housing. Here in California, the state committed to a nearly $3 billion expansion of Homekey over the next two years. And advocates say it can't come soon enough. At last count, more than 161,000 people were homeless in California, people like Michele Griffin Young and her son, John Young. They were thankful for Casa Buena and the chance to live in a safe, stable place. But for John, it came too late.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: This is where he passed away, right here in my own room. Were there with him? Yes, I was here.

BALDASSARI: He died in the middle of the night.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: And when I got up in the morning, he was gone. He was cold.

BALDASSARI: John Young was 32. His mom says his kidneys started to fail when they were living in the car. Then his eyesight started to deteriorate not long after that. But those few extra months indoors bought them a little more time together.

GRIFFIN YOUNG: And I just can't tell you how much it helped to keep us going as long as we did. It was really incredible.

BALDASSARI: Homekey doesn't come close to getting all of California's homeless residents off the streets. But advocates are hopeful it's evidence the state is finally treating homelessness as the public health emergency that it is.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Baldassari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.