Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state has become the first in the nation to secure Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA, approval to provide safe isolation capacity for tens of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in California.

Tens of thousands of people are experiencing homelessness in California during the COVID-19 pandemic. African Americans make up nearly half of the homeless in the state. Also, African Americans in Sacramento are clearly visible in such places as Oak Park and need shelter.

The action will protect individuals and families in the state from COVID-19. Almost 129,000 people in the state of California experienced homelessness in 2019. Almost half of that number are African Americans.

The state’s effort, “Project Roomkey,” has set an initial goal of securing up to 15,000 rooms for this purpose and county partners have moved 869 homeless individuals most vulnerable to COVID-19 off the street, out of shelters, and into isolation.

“Homeless Californians are incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 and often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,” said Gov. Newsom said in a written statement. “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.”

Project Roomkey also means that state and local governments will obtain up to 75 percent cost-share reimbursement from FEMA for hotel and motel rooms, including wraparound support services such as meals, security, and custodial services. Essential behavioral health and health care services will also be provided by the local governments and community partners, as needed.

California is pioneering a different approach to this emergency by working collaboratively with the hospitality sector with a goal to bring more than 15,000 hotel units online at a rapid pace.

Kevin Carter, a homeless advocate and member of Northern California’s Poor People’s Campaign, has been canvassing parts of Sacramento’s impoverished areas aiding unsheltered individuals.

Carter said that he and other members such as community activist Faye Kennedy identified at least 30 homeless people living on the western edge of Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.

The site, near Highway 50 and Highway 99, is a can’t-miss for anyone riding by Alhambra and X Street, where a majority of homeless people camp out. Black faces are the norm.

“They are mostly Black people living and gathering in various homeless encampments. But they are spaced out,” Carter told The OBSERVER. “We supply them with water, food, hand sanitizers, and to see if anyone is sick or needs to be hospitalized for COVID-19.”

The National Poor People’s Campaign, started by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, confronts systematic racism, poverty, and social injustices across the country. Under the Poor People’s banner, Carter and his cohorts put together a program called “Sacramento Housing Services, Not Suites Coalition.”

“One of the things we are focused on right now is getting hotel or motel rooms for the homeless through the city and county,” Carter said. “As far as what the governor is doing … he’s moving in the right direction. But it comes down to the civic levels. There are still some problems like ‘sweeping.’ Well, why not sweep them off the streets into shelter?”

As of April 3, the state says that local governments secured 6,867 hotel and motel rooms for shelter. It’s a large undertaking considering the work that the Newsom administration has already done to mitigate what was already a significant problem.

Now the question will fall to who will be one those 15,000 folks bestowed a room to quarantine in to shield from COVID-19? California has an enormous homeless population that affects all colors, ages and gender.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that 128,777 individuals experienced homelessness in the state of California in 2019 based on the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. More than 108,000 people were tabulated as unsheltered and more than 41,000 suffered through chronic homelessness in 2019.

African Americans account for close to 40 percent of homeless people in California. Overall, HUD’s annual report shows that 56,257 individuals were unsheltered in the city and county of Los Angeles while 8,022 people represented the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda County. Sacramento city and county accounted for 5,561.

Across the country, 568, 000 people were homeless in 2019. At 39.8 percent, 225,735 Blacks were sleeping on the streets or living in shelters in North America. In 2018, a total of 553,000 people were homeless, the annual report stated.

California accounted for one-third, 33 percent, of all people experiencing homelessness as individuals in the United States and more than half, 53 percent, of all unsheltered individuals. African Americans make up 14 percent of the country’s population but 52 percent of the homeless issue, overall.

The estimate of families with children experiencing homelessness in California were 22,501 in 2019. Most likely, homeless families with children will be moved up to the front of the line when the state starts handing out keys for quarantine.

“We see families out here, too. They are spread out,” Carter said of homeless families in Sacramento. “The best that we can do is take up the numbers, for individuals, families, children, and males or females, so that we have statistics on paper. We then take the numbers to the county and city to let them know where they are.”

To provide safer options during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least for the 15,000 chosen to participate, Project Roomkey isolation units serve three critical public health purposes for the homeless:

  • Prioritize individuals experiencing homelessness who are asymptomatic, but are at high risk, such as people over 65 or who have certain underlying health conditions, and move them into motel or hotel units where they can more safely self-isolate.
  • Provide isolation capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness who have been exposed to COVID-19 (as documented by a state or local public health official, or medical health professional) that do not require hospitalization, but need isolation or quarantine; and
  • Provide isolation capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness who are COVID-19 positive, but who don’t need hospitalization. Without these isolation units, their only choice is to return to a congregate shelter setting or back to an encampment – both of which would lead to further spread of COVID-19.

“Through Project Roomkey, California has taken the lead in protecting homeless residents from COVID-19,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “This initiative sets a strong national example of how state leaders can leverage their dollars with FEMA, HUD and other federal funds to address the needs of the most vulnerable homeless populations in this crisis and protect public health.”

By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer