Now, he works nights as a security guard at a storage facility in Richmond, where he lives in a trailer on the property. During the day, he works for a nonprofit doing outreach at homeless encampments. He has health insurance and paid vacation time, he’s filing taxes and, for the first time in about three decades, he’s no longer under any kind of court supervision.
There’s no way any of that would have happened if he’d been kicked out of his motel room after 20 days, Scott said.
“I needed that time to get a job and help me with my mental health and to get me in contact with services,” he said. “Nothing happens in 20 days in government. Nothing.”
Would state and local officials in California have acted differently if they knew FEMA wouldn’t reimburse lengthy Project Roomkey stays? That’s a tough question, say those involved.
“The success of the program in keeping people safe outside of hospital settings is well documented,” Scott Murray, deputy director of public affairs and outreach programs for the California Department of Social Services, said in an email.
California did not see widespread COVID deaths among its unhoused communities, as experts initially feared. Roomkey also helped set a new standard of care in the state. After seeing how homeless occupants benefited from having a private space with a locking door—instead of sleeping on a cot in a traditional, crowded shelter—many California homeless service providers are opting to use similar models. Newsom’s latest plan is to deploy 1,200 tiny homes throughout the state as another way to give homeless occupants a private place to shelter.
Ellenberg said she’s sure Roomkey saved lives in Santa Clara County. If they had known from the beginning FEMA wouldn’t pay for longer stays, they might have imposed limits. But it’s hard to imagine a blanket 20-day cap, she said.
“When we think about what the impact would have been on people with health vulnerabilities, older adults, people with underlying conditions, if we had told them we can help and support you but only for three weeks,” Ellenberg said, “that would have been disastrous.”