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California launches initiative to place homeless in hotel rooms

Homeless population at risk from coronavirus

Sacramento – California Governor Gavin Newsom announced an initiative Friday to place homeless people in hotel and motel rooms around the state in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA and California counties have identified 6,867 rooms that are now in state possession, and they're looking to identify up to 15,000 rooms in total as an initial goal.   

The "Project Roomkey" initiative is the first of its kind in the nation, in which the federal agency would reimburse state and local governments up to 75 percent of the costs of the rooms, including services such as meals and security and custodial services, for the next three months, CBS SF Bay Area reports.

Essential behavioral health and health care services will also be provided by the local governments and community partners as needed. 

The agreements provide for extensions beyond the three-month period.

"Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance," Newsom said in a news release Friday. "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."

Advocates for the homeless, however, have been frustrated, The Associated Press reports. The governor said two weeks ago that California would quickly move to get more than 50,000 hotel rooms. The 7,000 rooms the state now has are housing almost 900 people, said Newsom. That accounts for a fraction of what's needed, the governor acknowledged. There are an estimated 150,000 homeless people in the state.

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Homeless tents are seen on San Julian Street in the Skid Row area in downtown Los Angeles, California on March 19, 2020. Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

The hotel and motel rooms will be reserved for extremely vulnerable individuals experiencing homelessness, as health officials around the state seek to flatten the curve and preserve hospital capacity.

"We had a number of counties in the last days that have reported incidences of positive test results [among the homeless] in counties large and small, including San Francisco, but other counties in L.A. that have shown at least a dozen, in fact 14 in our last count. By the way, that's an under count, we know. That's just what has been reported to us," Newsom said, according to CBS SF Bay Area. 

Newsom said Chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen will be providing meals to some of the homeless people relocated to hotels.

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