Yolo County is state leader in sheltering homeless during pandemic

Yolo County is state leader in sheltering homeless during pandemic

Photo Credits: MARIO RODRIGUEZ / AGGIE

County’s homeless outreach efforts during social distancing provide model for rest of state, official says

Yolo County is “punching above its weight class” when it comes to sheltering the homeless population under Gov. Newsom’s Project Roomkey plan, according to Davis Homeless Outreach Coordinator Ryan Collins. 

Collins delivered a report at the Yolo Board of Supervisors’ April 14 meeting, detailing the successes and challenges of the county’s homeless outreach efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Collins told the Board that Yolo was currently sheltering a much higher percentage of its homeless population compared to other California counties. 

“At the time of its announcement, I think approximately 870 individuals were sheltered individually statewide as a part of Project Roomkey, and Yolo had 110 of them,” Collins said. “I think that number is closer to 180 today. For a county of about 220,000 people in a state of 20 million people, that makes Yolo County punching about 25 times above its weight class in this effort.”  

Project Roomkey is a state initiative seeking to shelter homeless individuals in local hotel and motel rooms while shelter-in-place orders remain in effect. Project Roomkey intends to prioritize the “medically vulnerable” among California homeless populations — homeless individuals over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions — as well those who have been exposed to COVID-19, but do not require medical attention, according to an April press release from the governor’s office. 

The goal of the program is three-fold, according to the release: protecting a vulnerable population from infection, reducing the density of individuals in homeless shelters and easing pressure on local hospitals during the pandemic. 

“Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,” Newsom said in the release. “By helping the most vulnerable homeless individuals off the street and into isolation, California can slow the spread of COVID-19 through homeless populations, lower the number of people infected and protect critical health care resources.”

Collins told the Board that part of Yolo’s success under Project Roomkey was due, in part, to a head start — the county had enacted similar programs before and had served as a model for other counties’ efforts. Collins pointed to Yolo’s “Bridge to Housing” program, which sheltered 65 homeless individuals from West Sacramento in 2014, according to a county report

“[Project Roomkey] is similar to what we did with Bridge to Housing in 2014, 2015,” Collins said. “So I think we had some of our playbook written, and that helped us get into a lead on this.”

There are daily deliveries from local food banks to the motels around Yolo where participants are sheltered, Collins said, as well as CalFresh eligibility workers available to help enroll those sheltered. Healthcare workers from Communicare are providing in-person visits for individuals with high levels of medical needs. Yolo’s Project Roomkey initiative has been working well, in part because of a dedicated on-site staff that offers supportive services and outlines expectations for participants. Collins said. 

“We are deploying on-site staffing teams at the motels,” Collins said. “So it’s not ‘Hey, here’s your roomkey, good luck, do whatever.’ It’s ‘Hey, here’s your roomkey, here’s some information on how this is going to work right now.’” 

Collins indicated that while leasing motel rooms might be cost-prohibitive to continue after the pandemic, the success of Project Roomkey might provide a model for future support and outreach services for the county’s homeless population. 

“There are surely lower-cost interventions that we can continue, with maybe even lower levels of staffing but similar models of volunteers, cheap affordable modular levels of housing, of just providing opportunities [to] people to get on the grid and connected, for anyone who wants out of those circumstances,” Collins said.  

Supervisor Don Saylor agreed, praising the efforts of Yolo’s homeless outreach coordinators.

“I’m hoping one of [the] things that we take out of this dark time for us all is lessons learned on how to deal with issues like this — like homelessness — into the future,” Saylor said.  

Written by: Tim Lalonde — city@theaggie.org