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SCG Resource: Project Room Key

Publication date: 
Thursday, April 30, 2020

By Erika Cervantes, Public Policy and Government Relations 


On April 3rd, Governor Newsom announced a new state program called Project Roomkey, a first-in-the-nation initiative to secure hotel and motel rooms to protect homeless individuals from COVID-19. This announcement came after revealing that California has been the first state in the nation to secure approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for efforts aimed at providing physical distancing accommodations for people experiencing homelessness to protect them from COVID-19. The partnership with FEMA grants local, state, and tribal governments eligibility up to 75 percent cost-share for reimbursement for hotel and motel rooms, and wraparound support services such as meals, security, and custodial services. Local governments can utilize the $150 million in emergency homeless aid that the Legislature made available to combat COVID-19 in mid-March. 

Project Roomkey aims to secure up to 15,000 rooms to move homeless individuals off the street, out of shelters, and into isolation. To do so, the program will target hotels and motels in counties with significant homeless populations that are also experiencing high concentrations of COVID-19 transmission. Large cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco have announced their own hotel room goals, some of which, if met locally, could end up doubling or tripling the state’s total number. For example, Los Angeles County, home to the state’s largest concentrations of people experiencing homelessness, set its own goal of securing 15,000 rooms.

Under Project Roomkey, cities and counties negotiate most leases directly with hotels and motels, which are paid for in part by FEMA funds. Local governments and counties are also responsible for identifying which individuals need a Project Roomkey placement and then must move those individuals into the rooms. The State, however, has committed to providing dedicated support teams to counties, including assistance in identifying hotels, negotiating and executing operating agreements, and providing the local providers technical assistance in keeping the records necessary to receive federal reimbursement. A key component of this state technical assistance includes the Department of Social Services which has provided individualized assistance regarding core operating supports for the sites, how to leverage funding sources and has facilitated convenings for service providers to develop a unified approach to addressing homelessness. The Department of General Services has also provided individualized technical assistance to help communities establish occupancy agreements with local property owners to secure emergency housing. The State was also successful in securing an agreement with the Motel 6 chain to make available all of its corporate-owned locations to counties. This master agreement, if all locations are adopted by local county jurisdictions, includes an additional 5,025 rooms in 47 different hotels in 19 counties around the state. 

For the most part, the State and local counties are negotiating agreements with hotels/motels for three months beginning each site’s opening date. Individuals are prioritized as possible qualifiers for the program based on their vulnerability to COVID-19, this includes those aged 65 or older, individuals at higher risk for severe illnesses, and those with underlying medical conditions. However, clients are not allowed to walk-up and access the sites. Individuals must be pre-screened and selected by a homeless services provider or referred by an outreach team before they can be transported to a participating site. Prior to entrance, clients are screened for COVID-19-related symptoms pursuant to guidance issued by the Department of Public Health, and once on site, staff and clients will be checked for symptoms daily. Each site will have, on-premise, a Registered Nurse and a Certified Nurse’s Assistant to provide medically administered health checks. Clients are expected to abide by the same “Safer at Home” and physical distancing orders, but every site will have a unique set of operational hours by which clients are permitted to leave their rooms when needed. 

Every hotel and motel within Project Roomkey will include essential wraparound services, such as custodial, laundry, security, and support staff. The state was also able to execute a master agreement with Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen to provide counties access through a contract, to provide three meals a day to clients of Project Roomkey where possible. A variety of subsidized meal programs are also available at the state and local levels, with local nonprofits such as EveryTable stepping up, and delivering three meals a day to newly housed individuals in their local area. Many other service providers are eager to help and participate as well. In Los Angeles, local organizations such as St. Joseph’s Center, Union Station Homeless Services, Los Angeles Family Housing, and Downtown Women’s Center are working on identifying homeless individuals that qualify for the program. United Way of Greater LA has also stepped up and is working on helping coordinate up to 5,0000 hospitality and welcome kits for individuals moving into Project Roomkey hotels. These kits will include basic necessities such as toiletries, socks, food as well as notes of encouragement.  

Challenges to Implementation

Despite this progress, the program has encountered some setbacks and significant gaps. Because local cities and counties are responsible for negotiating leases directly with hotels and motels, whether or not those cities and counties choose to fill rooms is left up to local jurisdictions. Local opposition to Project Roomkey has surfaced in areas like Orange County, with hotel owners opting out of deals to house homeless COVID-positive patients, and with residents from Laguna Hills filing a lawsuit against the county to stop the program in their city. On the other hand, cities and localities which has committed to the program, are not seeing the results they anticipated. Cities are having a hard time finalizing deals with hotel and motel owners because in some cases, these deals require a buyout of the entire hotel/motel property, meaning all existing guests must complete their stays before Project Roomkey guests can move in. Local leaders like Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has requested hotel and motel owners to reach out directly to help the city locate more available rooms. 

Additionally, a lag has existed in getting people to fill rooms that are available. Since individuals must be contacted first by a service provider, screened and recommended for the program, there is a slowdown in getting people into available rooms. A separate obstacle for getting more people into the program is that many homeless residents don’t have information about the program or how to access it, thus creating a large gap in who is receiving aid and those that are not. There is a need for homeless service providers to continue getting people more quickly into already available rooms, and for local hotel and motel owners to join the program and expand the number of available rooms. 
Project Roomkey aims to not only protect high-risk individuals but to also prevent the spread of the deadly virus in our communities and protect the capacity of our fragile hospitals and healthcare system by providing a place for individuals to safely isolate.


As of April 18, the Governor has announced the availability of 10,974 hotel and motel rooms statewide, in addition to the Motel 6 agreement, with at least 4,211 people already moved out of shelters and off the streets into rooms. In Los Angeles County, as of April 29rd, the County has housed 1,351 people of 1,546 available rooms. 


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