Thousands of California's homeless will move into hotels: Gov. Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday outlined some of the the state's emergency actions to protect Californians experiencing homelessness and the public from COVID-19, including moving thousands of unsheltered people into hotels. 

He said his team has secured 7,000 hotel rooms for the homeless, and is on the way to scoring 15,000 in what he is dubbing "Project Room Key."  World Central Kitchen Jose Andres will be providing three meals a day for those staying at these sites.  

Nearly 900 people have already moved into the hotels, Newsom said, adding that he didn't want to "flood" the hotels all at once. 

The hotel rooms are in addition to the 1,300 trailers the state has secured for the homeless. They will also complement what individual cities, such as San Francisco, have been doing in terms of moving the unsheltered off the streets. 

In the last few weeks, Newsom said $800 million grants has been spent on support services for the homeless. And the federal government has also been spending millions to augment these temporary hotel shelters, Newsom said. FEMA will pay up to a 75% reimbursement rate to California for the hotels, Newsom said.

Who gets to move into the hotels? Newsom said officials will triage in this order: Homeless people diagnosed with the virus, homeless people who have close contact with those diagnosed with the virus and homeless people who are at higher risk for the virus, meaning they are older than 65 or have pre-existing health conditions. 

Homelessness has long been one of the most vexing challenges for California, and Newsom noted that leaders will also be trying to take this opportunity to figure out more long-term solutions to this social and economic issue. 

Newsom's update comes a day after a homeless person in San Francisco tested positive for coronavirus, and after another homeless person died in Santa Clara County in mid-March, the state's first known coronavirus-related homeless death.  

Newsom noted that death, calling it "tragic." 

On Friday, Newsom reported that California has 10,710 positive coronavirus cases. Of that, 2,100 people are hospitalized and 901 are in Intensive Care Units, up 10.4% from the day before. 

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who chairs the state's task force on homelessness, thanked Newsom for highlighting homelessness during this health crisis.

"Unsheltered homelessness was a crisis before COVID-19," Steinberg said at the news conference. "It is a heightened crisis during this epidemic. If we do our part now, it might be less of a crisis as we come out of this."

The Associated Press reported that relatively few of California’s 150,000 homeless have been moved into individual quarters and there’s no indication of widespread checks on health and safety among people living and sleeping in encampments.

It’s unclear — partly due to testing shortages — how many even have the highly contagious virus. More than a dozen cases have been confirmed.

Homeless at high risk for coronavirus 

“The whole shelter-in-place and the whole lack of shelter-in-place for homeless people was totally poorly thought out,” Needa Bee told the AP. She lives in a camper in Oakland with her teenage daughter.

The shutdown of public libraries and other facilities has made it much harder for homeless people to get clean water and food or use the bathroom. Many are also older or have underlying health conditions.

In San Francisco, some supervisors want more aggressive action to move people off the streets, while the mayor is focusing on people already in shelters or those showing symptoms. The city moved 123 people showing symptoms or awaiting test results into hotel rooms but didn’t get thermometers for shelters until last week.

The Trump administration announced $3 billion Thursday for homelessness pandemic efforts. California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged $150 million in homeless aid as one of his earliest acts during the crisis.

He pushed back on the idea that people sleeping on hard streets would refuse help, saying “there’s a lot of mythology about resistance; I think it’s wildly overstated.”

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif. The Associated Press contributed to this report.