San Diego County to End Struggling COVID-19 Hotel Program

Chris VonKroog is expected to cross Barnett Avenue in San Diego on December 15, 2021. VonKroog has been staying with his dog, Bobo, at a COVID-19 shelter hotel in the Old Town since January. (Zoë Meyers / new source)

San Diego County will stop using hotels as COVID-19 shelters by March 31 – more than two years after the struggling program began isolating people with nowhere to go – because the money Federal used to pay it should run out, said Housing director David Estrella.

Costing at least $ 5.2 million per month, the hotel program is the first of its kind and has been praised for its success in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Corn newsource reports from the past 18 months have revealed mismanagement, neglect and harassment of guests staying at hotels.

Estrella said the plan was to connect the remaining residents to other housing options by the end of March, sending people to a homeless shelter as a last resort. Authorities have already issued nearly 100 emergency housing vouchers to people at risk of becoming homeless.

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Chris VonKroog, one of the hotel guests who received a voucher, is worried about where he will end up. He said that although the voucher gives him financial support, it does nothing for his credit and health issues prevent him from going to a homeless shelter.

“I don’t think I’m going to find accommodation on time,” said VonKroog. “I’m literally going to be back on the streets with my dog.”

In March 2020, county officials took over the Crowne Plaza in Mission Valley and other hotels to temporarily house people who needed a place to isolate themselves – many of whom are homeless and may be struggling with an illness. mental illness or substance use disorders. In total, the program served about 13,700 people, Estrella said.

With data, documents and multiple interviews, newsource exposed a series of problems in hotels, which was later confirmed by a dazzling assessment released by San Diego State University in August. The assessment also indicated that the county contractor, Equus Workforce Solutions, is unqualified to run the program and employs poorly trained staff, which has forced residents to endure long delays for much-needed medications and who have allowed gaps in services that may have led to overdoses and suicide.

At least seven people have died as part of the program, according to records obtained from the medical examiner’s office. Five deaths have been linked to overdoses.

On December 3, the county extended its $ 140.6 million contract with Equus until the end of March, ending the program.

“As vaccination rates have increased and positive cases have declined, the need for this essential service has also declined,” Estrella told the supervisory board on December 7.

But as county officials prepare to shut down a program that aimed to keep vulnerable people safe, the Omicron variant has started to spread locally and the vast majority of the county faces “high” or “transmission rates”. substantial ”of COVID-19.

County officials did not respond to a question about the timing of the move, saying only that hotel occupancy rates have declined and that they will continue to monitor this as they have throughout the year. pandemic.

But unplugging this public health initiative could be a serious mistake that could spell disaster for vulnerable populations, said Sanghyuk Shin, epidemiologist and public health expert at the University of California, Irvine.

“We really need to expand these types of services as soon as possible to really prevent a huge surge and overflow of hospitals,” he said, adding that homeless shelters “are just ripe for large-scale events. “.

Omicron has shown an ability to dodge defenses, such as vaccination or previous infection, allowing it to spread quickly and widely even in populations with high levels of prior immunity, Shin added. He expects the new variant to take root in the coming weeks, causing an exponential increase in cases, and warned of the false sense of security that vaccines will help bring us back to normal.

“The vaccines are fantastic and they work very well in a lot of ways,” Shin said, “but they are clearly not a quick fix and unfortunately other measures really need to be in place to maximize the effectiveness of these vaccines in the world. population level. “

Transition plan

The hotel program has two components: isolation and high-risk hotels.

People who come in contact with the coronavirus and have nowhere to quarantine – including first responders who had to move away from their families, as well as those without housing – have been sent to a hotel isolation. Homeless people with underlying health problems were given a room in a high-risk hotel. Some have lived there for a year or more.

At its peak, the hotel program served more than 1,100 people as of September, Estrella said. Many of them were asylum seekers who tested positive for COVID-19 while in federal detention and were sent to an isolation hotel for quarantine, a county spokesperson said.

That same month, the state established its own isolation hotel to serve migrants, Estrella said. Since then, the number of people staying in hotels in the county has steadily declined. Today, an isolated hotel serves between 100 and 150 people every night, he added. Authorities did not say how many people were staying in high-risk hotels.

The county has relied on money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the program, but officials predict that reimbursements will end on April 1. For this reason, coupled with the reduced need for services, Estrella said the county would end the program and vacate hotels by the end of March.

Officials will stop taking charge of referrals to the hotel program on March 1, which will naturally lead to hotel isolation going down as people complete their quarantine period. Staff will help guests staying at high-risk hotels with other options, Estrella added, such as putting them in touch with family or other support systems, helping them with another program called rapid relocation, or their give a voucher. If all else fails, Estrella said staff will send people to a long-term shelter through the city’s partners and the regional homelessness task force.

But some tenants fear falling through the cracks.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do”

VonKroog said he and his 4-year-old service dog, a chihuahua mix named Bobo, had been living in one of the high-risk hotels in the Old Town since January. Before that, they slept in his car in one of San Diego’s secure parking lots. He no longer has the car.

Chris VonKroog is shown with his dog, Bobo, in the Old Town on December 15, 2021. (Zoë Meyers / new source)

“I have my voucher and it looks awesome and wonderful, but now I have to find a place,” said VonKroog, “and I have to find a place based on credit, which… is absolutely horrible now.”

He said he had a head start on a community of 55 and over for residents with disabilities – a 2018 motorcycle accident forced him to rely on an electric scooter to get around – but if that fails, he already thinks of having to sleep under a bridge on rainy days.

And until then, he said he will have to continue to put up with the constant harassment and ableism from hotel staff and security.

“The worst part is how I felt. I was literally in tears. I was made to feel absolutely horrible, ”VonKroog said.

He echoed the sentiments expressed by residents and other interviewees during the SDSU Independent Review that staff members “steal from you, they treat you like you’re nothing, then when you try to filing a complaint is not going anywhere ”.

An Equus representative did not respond to a request for comment.

Linda McDowell and her 5 year old pit bull named Stella have been at the same hotel since January. Life there has been difficult, she said. Records show the county contractor attempted to kick her out of the room at least once and that she filed a temporary restraining order against one of the staff for harassment.

But McDowell is still here and is hoping she finds a place to stay on April 1. She said case managers appeared to be doing what they could – make calls on her behalf and stay in regular contact – but nothing worked.

During this time, the guests around her receive vouchers or other forms of assistance. She worries about what her future holds because she has nothing to fall back on, other than her 2018 SUV.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, adding that she was depressed. “I don’t have any opportunities or families to go to, so it would be back in my car and it’s a problem because you can’t cook, you can’t shower. I mean, it’s gonna be tough.

Jill Castellano contributed to this report.

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