A houseless individual sleeps outside on the sidewalk while residents shelter in place indoors. Illustration by Ryan Tran.

On April 3, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative aimed at securing up to 15,000 hotel rooms for houseless individuals. The state acquired 12,603 rooms and 1,200 trailers as of April 29. 

“This is something that’s going on all over the place, trying to get the unhoused into hotel rooms, or somewhere so that they can self isolate,” said President of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Homeless Union Alicia Kuhl. “For Santa Cruz to not put a rush on that, I think it’s going to be a deadly mistake and we’re doing the best we can to get them to recognize that before it’s really too late. We don’t want our friends and families to die.” 

According to Santa Cruz County Communications Manager Jason Hoppin, the county contracted three hotels under the Isolation/Quarantine Shelter program, which the county initiated to provide isolated shelter to houseless individuals. 

Each hotel is entirely dedicated to isolation, a requirement for entering into a contract with the county. There are a total of 117 rooms across the three hotels.

Participants are chosen for the program if they are presumed or confirmed to be COVID-19 positive, aged 65 or older or medically vulnerable. As of May 2, 42 rooms are occupied. The most recently contracted third hotel will have 54 rooms available and will begin accepting participants in one to two weeks. The remaining 21 rooms are reserved for those who are assumed or confirmed to be COVID-19 positive. 

Currently, no participants in the Isolation/Quarantine Shelter program have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I am disappointed that between the city and county the choice has been made to only place those already sick with Covid-19 in hotel rooms, even after project room key has been put into place,” Kuhl said in a Facebook post. “Every single one of our homeless residents is vulnerable automatically to Covid-19 and should be offered a safe place to self isolate that isn’t in a congregate setting.”

Hoppin said the Shelter in Care Task Force — headed by the Santa Cruz County Health Agency to prioritize those at high risk of illness — is working with the State of California and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring in about 10 trailers to a site between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

There is limited hotel room availability for houseless residents in Santa Cruz County for several reasons, according to Hoppin. Hotel owners in South County are reserving rooms for seasonal farmworkers, limiting the supply. Additionally, all participating Santa Cruz County hotels are required to have security guards and nurses on call 24/7.  

Isolation/Quarantine Shelter program participants receive transportation services, three meals a day, snacks and laundry service.