A New Tactic To Fight Coronavirus: Send Homeless From Jails To Hotels

This story originally appeared on The Marshall Project. It has been republished with permission.

California and New York City are booking hotels so homeless people released from jail don’t accelerate the pandemic. Pictured: A homeless encampment in East Bay, Oakland, July 2017. (Thomas Hawk)

Two hotels near the airport in Oakland are receiving unusual guests now that coronavirus has eviscerated tourism: homeless people being released from jail.

It’s part of an experiment to provide government-paid hotel rooms to homeless people—including those released from jail under emergency orders—in an effort to limit the spread of the virus both behind bars and in this state’s sprawling homeless encampments. California and New York appear to be the first states trying it.

“We are doing things that we’ve never done before,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, the sheriff’s spokesman in Alameda County, which includes Oakland. “The reason for the decision is to save lives—there’s no doubt about that. We’re up against a clock.”

The pandemic has prompted law enforcement officials throughout the country to make difficult decisions to try to prevent outbreaks in crowded jails, where people often cycle in and out as they wait for trial or serve short stints. Some agencies have released thousands of people early. But when people leave jails, where do they go?

It’s a thorny question in the best of times, and cities are trying to find answers. Some metropolitan areas, where COVID-19 has shut down tourism, are leasing hotel rooms so that homeless people, including some newly released from jail, can self-isolate.

In New York City, the Department of Homeless Services offered rooms to homeless people released from Rikers Island, the city’s jail. But perhaps nowhere is the housing need as pressing as in California, where the pandemic overlaps with a historic homelessness crisis.

Makeshift tent encampments line highways, railroad tracks and parks. There are an estimated 150,000 homeless Californians, driven to the streets by soaring home prices—the median price has surpassed $570,000— a housing shortage and lack of access to mental health care. It’s become the top concern for state voters, and Gov. Gavin Newsom devoted his recent State of the State address to the problem, calling it a “disgrace.”

With COVID-19 cases rising, Newsom signed an executive order that includes $50 million to lease hotel rooms or buy travel trailers for homeless people, including those released from jails.

On Friday, the governor said the state had secured 7,000 hotel rooms so far.

Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat and chair of the California Assembly Budget Committee, said lawmakers allowed flexibility for local governments to house particularly vulnerable people, like homeless prisoners.

“If someone in a homeless encampment got sick because of coronavirus, the whole encampment could be infected,” Ting said.

A New Tactic To Fight Coronavirus: Send Homeless From Jails To Hotels
Pictured: Mosswood Park in Oakland, August 2019. (Daniel Ramirez)

Oakland is among the first localities in California to get a hotel lease, according to the governor’s office. State officials and advocates for the homeless are hopeful as they watch Oakland’s experiment.

“Being placed in a motel room means having your own living space, your own shower, your own bed, and it allows you to self-isolate,” said Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy analyst and advocate for the ACLU of Southern California. “Honestly, I feel that it will save lives.”

Garrow focuses her work on Los Angeles, where an estimated 45,000 people live on the streets.

“Hotels are clearly an ideal situation right now,” said Randall Kuhn, an associate professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and co-author of a recent study that estimated coronavirus could hospitalize 2,600 homeless people in Los Angeles and result in about 400 deaths. He said Bay Area counties were “really setting an example for the rest of the country.”

Oakland’s agreement allows the government to lease 393 rooms in the two hotels near the airport. Since coronavirus began appearing in the Bay Area, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has released hundreds of people from Santa Rita Jail, one of the state’s largest lockups. Many of the inmates simply return to their homes, but those without shelter can be considered for a hotel slot.

The hotels, a Comfort Inn and Suites and the Radisson Hotel at the Oakland Airport, began taking people under the new contracts on March 25. The hotels are both located away from residential areas, near a busy highway. On a recent afternoon, guards wearing face masks stood at the entrances.

Hotel employees referred questions to the K&K Hotel Group, which is listed on the leases. No one there responded to phone and email inquiries.

County officials did not release a count of how many people are in the hotels, or how many among them were released from jail.

Other counties throughout the state have also started lease negotiations, including San Diego and San Francisco, where county supervisors unanimously approved a resolution that included housing for people who had been in jail.

San Francisco’s public defender, Mano Raju, estimated 20 to 30 percent of the local jail population did not have anywhere to live.

“People coming out of the jail are one of the most vulnerable populations, and we need to be sure they have housing so they don’t contract the virus,” he said.

Kelly, of the Alameda Sheriff’s Office, said he hopes his county’s plan can serve as a blueprint for places throughout the country as they wrestle with how to safely release people from jails. He said crime is down and that no jail detainees have yet to test positive for the virus.

“People should be looking to California,” he said. “We have a week ahead of a lot of other jurisdictions. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel on this.”

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

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Abbie VanSickle covers criminal justice in California for The Marshall Project. She has worked as a reporter for the University of California, Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Law and a lecturer at its Graduate School of Journalism. From 2011 to 2012, she was a Henry Luce Scholar in Cambodia, where she worked on behalf of survivors at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.