In the spring, California policymakers created Project Roomkey to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness amid the pandemic. To date, the program has provided a hotel room to more than 22,000 people. Governor Newsom recently announced an additional $62 million in one-time state funds to continue the program over the winter, given the current surge in COVID-19 cases. Though Project Roomkey was conceived as a short-term emergency measure, evaluating its impact and that of its successor, Project Homekey, could shed light on long-term strategies for tackling California’s homelessness crisis.
Project Roomkey serves people experiencing homelessness who have been infected by or exposed to the coronavirus, as well as those who are at high risk of complications, such as older adults and those with underlying health conditions. People experiencing homelessness are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus for various reasons (e.g., shelter services are generally in group settings).
In California, more than 150,000 people experienced homelessness in 2019 (the most recent data available). Of these, nearly 42,000 people have a disability and face chronic challenges securing housing. And about 108,000 people are “unsheltered”—living on the street or in abandoned buildings, as opposed to in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
Statewide, Project Roomkey has provided rooms for about 8% of the overall homeless population and slightly over 10% of all unsheltered Californians. About 30% of those with chronic patterns of homelessness secured a room. It is important to note that these data most likely overestimate the share of people being served because they rely on counts that took place before the pandemic and that, even then, likely undercounted the total number of people experiencing homelessness.
These state-level estimates mask large differences across California. Comparing the seven counties with the largest homeless populations, Project Roomkey provided rooms to about 3% of the overall homeless population in San Diego County, compared to 20% in San Francisco. In Los Angeles County, which has the largest homeless population in the state by far, about 5% were provided rooms. This lower rate has important equity implications, as more than 40% of people lacking stable housing in LA County are Black. There are similar differences across counties in the share of people experiencing chronic homelessness who were able to secure rooms.
Since counties generally manage Project Roomkey, policymakers should monitor how well the program is serving local needs. Tracking program use and outcomes across regions will be important to understand how the program is serving different groups of Californians, particularly Black and LGBTQI individuals, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness. It is also essential that local agencies monitor where people go once they leave the program: How many found permanent housing? How many returned to homelessness? And—a stark reality—how many died? Recent investigations by journalists have provided some insights, but much remains unknown.
Combatting the state’s homelessness crisis and promoting an equity-based approach require a better way to assess policies and investments. Several larger counties have integrated data across multiple systems (e.g., supportive housing services, jails, and hospital emergency departments) to identify those most in need of support. Harnessing this information to identify who is at risk of homelessness and to rigorously evaluate housing interventions for those with acute medical and psychiatric needs is crucial to craft effective policies. But these types of studies are only possible in counties with integrated data systems. Building this capacity for evidence-based local interventions in more counties would greatly aid the state’s efforts to reduce homelessness.