As the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the US in early March, communities scrambled to create safer conditions for people experiencing homelessness, who face greater threat of exposure, infection, and death from the coronavirus. Many communities secured hotel rooms to lessen the risks posed by living in crowded shelters or in unsheltered situations, but the people needing shelter dwarfed the number of rooms secured.
With eviction moratoria ending and some hotel efforts winding down, communities are balancing how to pivot to long-term solutions for those who were in hotel rooms, provide safe shelter options, and prevent a new wave of people entering homelessness. As a result, communities are fighting a two-front battle against the worsening homelessness crisis: local governments need more funding to continue stopgap measures like hotel placements and more funding to establish permanent housing solutions.
Hotel rooms effectively provided safe shelter
Repurposing hotels and motels received widespread news attention in March, but it was unclear how many communities adopted the strategy. To understand the scale of hotel repurposing, we conducted a scan of press releases, news articles, and local government and nonprofit websites in 80 jurisdictions. We selected a sample of Continuums of Care (CoCs), the local governing bodies that coordinate homelessness assistance services and funding, proportionally representing major cities and mostly urban, mostly suburban, and rural areas.
About 70 percent of CoCs we looked at used hotels at some point in the past five months. Communities across the US embraced this strategy, from Jackson City, Michigan, (with a homeless population of 113 at last count) to New York City and Los Angeles (with homeless populations of 78,604 and 56,257, respectively, at last count).
All 11 major cities in our sample used hotels, and 71 percent of suburban areas, 67 percent other largely urban areas, and 52 percent of rural areas adopted the strategy. Hotel use was common nationwide but slightly higher in Midwestern and Western CoCs (80 and 72 percent) than in Southern and Northeastern CoCs (65 and 57 percent).
Communities most often used hotels to isolate symptomatic or test-positive people and to deconcentrate shelters, which initially showed high rates of spread. Over 75 percent pursued either strategy, across both rural and urban settings, including Louisville, Kentucky, and Waco, Texas. Fewer than half of communities we investigated used hotels to address multiple needs. Some, such as Denver, Colorado, specified different hotels for each purpose, and others with limited spaces tended to prioritize people at higher risk or those who had contracted the coronavirus or were symptomatic.
CoCs were least likely to prioritize people who were unsheltered, even though people forced to live outside endure conditions that often result in poor health outcomes and are at risk of spreading communicable diseases. Based on our scan, none of the major-city CoCs with homeless populations of more than 4,000 people prioritized those experiencing unsheltered homelessness unless they met other criteria for hotel placement, such as contracting the coronavirus. Federal funding requirements could have affected these decisions, with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds designated to shelter people who contracted, were directly exposed to, or were at high risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Most communities in our sample used at least some Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to finance the hotel leases or the infrastructure that supported them, including food and medical care. Some local governments financed these programs directly in the hopes of later federal reimbursement or additional state dollars. Community providers were often responsible for staffing hotels on their own.
Hotel rooms are insufficient to meet the need
Overall, communities in our scan who secured hotel rooms obtained anywhere from 18 to 13,000 hotel rooms and housed 18 percent of their homeless populations on average. This means across the country, thousands of people are still forced to sleep outside or in substandard conditions during the pandemic.
California received widespread attention for launching Project Roomkey in March, which provided cities and counties with $150 million in state funding to house high-risk Californians experiencing homelessness in empty hotels. Los Angeles County rapidly placed 4,027 people in hotel rooms using funding through Project Roomkey. Although housing that many people in such a short time is unprecedented, it accounted for less than 7 percent of the county’s total homeless population.
Other areas have not been able to maintain their efforts. Fort Lauderdale, Florida, ran out of CARES Act funds and has been forced to move people back into shelters or on the streets based on test results. Montana has struggled to meet the need because federal funding was delayed and limited. Without additional funding, communities could be forced to abandon hotel rooms even though the strategy has successfully contained the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness.
Plans and barriers for communities pivoting to long-term solutions
Project Roomkey has pivoted to Project Homekey with the goal of leveraging federal funds to turn temporary hotel units into shelter or permanent housing solutions. Orange County and several Bay Area counties have already moved to purchase hotels to convert to permanent housing options.
Washington, DC, started coordinating permanent housing placements for hotel residents and had moved 19 people by the beginning of August. And New Haven, Connecticut, coordinated hotel placements for 266 people, using the process to expedite permanent housing placements and case management. In June, the CoC made plans to transition all hotel residents to permanent housing using CARES Act funding.
Aside from these few examples, most communities we examined did not have publicly available plans for the transition to permanent housing for people residing in hotels.
With the pandemic continuing and infection and mortality rates increasing in some parts of the country, significant additional funding is necessary to maintain the emergency investment in hotel rooms, at least temporarily, and to scale public health and housing responses that can ensure the safety of all people experiencing homelessness by providing them with permanent housing. Several national organizations are urging communities to prioritize targeting CARES Act emergency rental assistance resources to people (PDF) living in unsheltered situations and in hotels and motels.
The need looms ever larger; one estimate projects a 40–45 percent increase in homelessness because of COVID-19. Expiring eviction moratoria, the lapse in supplemental unemployment insurance, and dwindling emergency assistance will likely exacerbate the situation.
The Urban Institute estimates $15.5 billion per month in rental assistance would keep people housed in the absence of the supplemental unemployment insurance—and that doesn’t address the people already experiencing homelessness in hotels or motels, in shelters, or on the street. Without significant investment in emergency rental assistance and other crucial housing resources, the number of people forced to experience homelessness on the streets, in parks, and in cars, is likely to increase.
Local governments and homeless service providers have shown they can quickly and creatively house people when given the funding and flexibility to do so. With the necessary short- and long-term resources, communities can address the needs of struggling residents and establish permanent housing solutions to prevent increases in homelessness.