As COVID-19 raged, state and local governments enacted “shelter at home” orders, but what did this mean for the homeless? A look at how one state responded with an innovative rapid emergency response and how data analysis and trends collected from this initiative could benefit other states and local communities interested in exploring a similar model.

Following a declared state of emergency to protect public health and safety for Californians due to COVID-19, Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project RoomKey, a first in the nation emergency solution that triangulated support for the state’s at-risk homeless, a hard-hit hospitality industry and limited health care resources.

Project RoomKey, at its inception intended to swiftly make available temporary housing for sheltering and treating homeless individuals testing positive for COVID-19 or at high-risk of exposure using empty motel and hotel rooms. This effort was expected to help bend the curve of transmission, resulting in less stress on the health care system while also creating economic opportunities for the hospitality industry.

Local governments were able to leverage 150 million in state emergency funds allocated to fight COVID-19 with a 75% federal cost-share reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  The initial goal of the project was to secure 15,000 rooms, inclusive of certain wraparound supports.

Within three short months, California, in partnership with the counties had procured 15,679 rooms and housed 14,200 individuals. On June 30th, with this progress as a backdrop and a new State budget, Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Homekey; the next step in the state’s roadmap to protect the homeless during the pandemic. Homekey infused over 1.3 billion in state funding to further support and expand housing services and placements. This initiative included options for local partners to identify buildings for purchase and apply for grants to secure these buildings for long-term services and placements.  In its inception, Project Homekey would offer a transition to more permanent-type placements for those still sheltered under Project RoomKey; a project expected to wind down by year’s end.

On November 12th, with thousands still sheltered in temporary placements under Project RoomKey, without a transitional placement secured, Governor Newsome announced an additional 62 million in funding for the project. This additional funding allows the counties to continue to shelter current at-risk participants and avoid returning them to the streets as the State and the nation face a critical resurgence of the pandemic.  The new allocation also directs funding for transition efforts to help move Project RoomKey occupants to more permanent housing as well as budget for technical specialists to help with the transition.

In summarizing efforts under Project RoomKey, the Governor said, “Project RoomKey exceeded all expectations, providing safe shelter to more than 22,300 Californians experiencing homelessness1. And, by most accounts, this model offered a very innovative approach to expeditiously sheltering many homeless individuals; individuals otherwise unable to isolate during an unprecedented public health crisis. However, the program has invited sharp criticism from some regarding relatively high costs, lower transition rates and serving only a small percent of California’s total homeless population (less than 20%).

Given the rich array of data this project may offer, an in-depth analysis would provide Californians and other interested jurisdictions with valuable insights regarding this model’s legacy. Moreover, findings from an analysis of Project Roomkey will likely offer critical data points to inform other homelessness strategies and solutions going forward.  A sample of key data points made publicly available that might prove useful to interested parties includes:

  • Average cost per resident, per night with ranges for high and low costs
  • Average length of stay
  • Average cost of room vs. support services per night
  • Average caseworker to client ratio
  • Percent of participants transitioned to permanent placements
  • Number of total rooms
  • Percent of rooms occupied

Additionally, since the program was implemented at the local level, a view of the data at the county level would offer a significant opportunity to more closely examine jurisdictions with above average outcomes to potentially identify best practices and key drivers for their performance.

The Human Services IT Advisory Group (HSITAG) and its workgroup on Homelessness welcome the opportunity to spotlight solutions such as Project RoomKey for others to consider in their fight against homelessness. HSITAG, a nonprofit technology trade association, offers a collaborative source of knowledge, educational outreach, and guidance to help improve the delivery of human service programs within state and local government.