San Diego County will stop using hotels as COVID-19 shelters by March 31 — more than two years after the turbulent program began isolating people who have nowhere else to go — because the federal funds used to pay for them are expected to run out, according to the housing outlet. David Estrella.
The hotel program costs at least $5.2 million per month, a first of its kind and has been praised for its success in preventing the spread of COVID-19. But internal source Reports over the past 18 months have revealed mismanagement, neglect and harassment of guests staying in hotels.
Estrella said the plan aims to connect the remaining residents with other housing options by the end of March, sending people to a homeless shelter as a last resort. Officials have already given out nearly 100 emergency housing vouchers to people at risk of homelessness.
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Chris Vonkrug, one of the hotel guests who received a voucher, worries about where it will end up. He said that while 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’ll find a home in time,” VonKroog said. “I’m literally going back to the street with my dog.”
In March 2020, county officials acquired the Crowne Plaza in Mission Valley and other hotels to house people who need somewhere to isolate temporarily — many of whom are homeless and may have mental illness or substance use disorders. Estrella said the program has served nearly 13,700 people.
With statements, documents and multiple interviews, internal source He exposed a host of problems in the hotels, which were later confirmed by the sharp assessment released by San Diego State University in August. The assessment also said the county’s contractor, Equus Workforce Solutions, is unqualified to operate the program and has poorly trained staff, forcing residents to suffer long delays in getting much-needed medicines and which have allowed gaps in services that may have led to doses Overdose and suicide.
At least seven people have died in the program, according to records obtained from the medical examiner’s office. Five deaths have been linked to overdose.
On December 3, the county extended its $140.6 million contract with Equus through the end of March, effectively ending the program.
“As vaccination rates increase and positive cases decrease, so does the need for this vital service,” Estrella told the Board of Supervisors on December 7.
But as county officials prepare to shut down a program that was meant to keep people at risk safe, the Omicron variant has begun to spread locally and the vast majority of the county is facing “high” or “significant” transmission rates of COVID-19.
County officials did not respond to a question about the timing of this decision, saying only that occupancy in hotels has decreased and they will continue to monitor that as they have done throughout the pandemic.
But Sangyuk Shin, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine and a public health expert, said stopping this public health initiative could be a huge mistake that could spell disaster for vulnerable populations.
“We really need to expand these types of services as quickly as possible to prevent a massive boom and hospital overcrowding,” he said, adding that homeless shelters are “absolutely ready for events to spread.”
Shen added that Omicron has shown its ability to evade defenses, such as vaccination or previous infection, allowing it to spread quickly and widely even in communities with high levels of prior immunity. He expects the new variant to take root in the next few weeks, causing a massive increase in cases, and warns against a false sense of security that vaccines will help us get back to normal life.
“Vaccines are great and they work really well in many ways, but it’s clearly not a panacea, and unfortunately other actions are needed to increase the efficacy of these vaccines at the population level,” Shane said.
The hotel program has two components: isolation and high-risk hotels.
People who had contact with the coronavirus and had nowhere to quarantine – including first responders who needed to be away from family, as well as people without housing – were sent to an isolated hotel. Non-residential people with underlying medical conditions were given a room in a high-risk hotel. Some have lived there for a year or more.
Estrella said the hotel program at its peak was serving more than 1,100 people in September. A county spokesperson said many of them were asylum seekers who tested positive for COVID-19 while in federal custody and were sent to an isolated hotel for quarantine.
That same month, the country set up its own secluded hotel to serve immigrants, Estrella said. Since then, the number of people staying in county hotels has steadily decreased. Today, he added, there is an isolated hotel serving between 100 and 150 people on any given night. Officials did not say how many people are staying in the high-risk hotels.
The county has been relying on funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the program, but officials expect the reimbursement will expire on April 1. That’s why, along with a reduced need for services, Estrella said the boycott would end the program and would terminate the program. Evacuation of hotels by the end of March.
Officials will stop referring referrals to the hotel program on March 1, causing the isolation hotel to naturally decline as people complete their quarantine period. Estrella added that staff will help guests staying in high-risk hotels with other options, such as connecting them to family or other support systems, helping them with another program called rapid rehousing, or giving them a voucher. If all else fails, Estrella said staff will send people to long-term shelter through city partners and the regional homelessness task force.
But some tenants are afraid they will fall into the cracks.
“I don’t know what to do”
VonKroog said he and his 4-year-old service dog, a Chihuahua mix named Bobo, have been living in a high-risk hotel in Old Town since January. Before that, they slept in his car in a secure parking lot in San Diego. He no longer has the car.
VonKroog said, “I have my voucher and it looks great and cool, but now I have to find a place, and I have to find a place based on credit, which is…so horrible now.”
He said he has pioneered a community of 55 or older for disabled residents — a motorcycle accident from 2018 caused him to rely on an electric scooter for commuting — but if that fails, he’s already considering having to sleep under a bridge on rainy days.
Until then, he said, he will have to continue to put up with constant harassment and squabbling by staff and security at the hotel.
“The worst part was how I felt. I was literally in tears. You made me feel so awful,” VonKroog said.
It echoed sentiments expressed by residents and others surveyed during the SDSU Independent Review that employees “steal from you, treat you like you’re nothing, and then when you try to make any kind of complaint, you don’t go anywhere.”
An Equus representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Linda McDowell and her 5-year-old daughter, Pitbull, Stella, have been at the same hotel since January. She said life was tough there. Records show that the county contractor attempted to kick her out of the room at least once, and she filed a temporary restraining order against an employee for harassment.
But McDowell is still there and hopes to find a place to stay on April 1st. She said case managers seemed to be doing what they could — making calls on her behalf and keeping in regular contact — but nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, guests around her receive coupons or other forms of assistance. She worries about what her future holds because she has nothing to return to, except for her 2018 SUV.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, adding that she was depressed. “I don’t have any opportunities or beds to go to, so it would be in my car and that’s a concern because you can’t cook, you can’t shower. I mean, it’s going to be hard.”
Jill Castellano contributed to this report.