Anxiety mounted every time someone at the homeless shelter sneezed or residents got too close. For Matthew Padilla, a 34-year-old with a pacemaker and asthma, catching the novel coronavirus would likely mean death.
So he jumped at the chance to move into a hotel room for free as part of a new California program. Within days, he and his husband, Nito, were in a room near Los Angeles' Koreatown, where meals are delivered along with health screenings.
"At the shelter I was constantly getting up, checking on him," said Nito Padilla, 36.
"And here I know he’s safe. I know he’s OK."
The Padillas are among roughly 7,000 people in California who have been moved out of shelters, vehicles and rough streets to ride out the pandemic in hotels, an effort Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in March to shield some of the state's 150,000 estimated vulnerable homeless.
Newsom has praised the progress, although counties are still struggling to acquire rooms and squabbles have developed in some cities. Local officials say the process has been complicated as they find appropriate hotels, negotiate leases and get staffing in place. It’s something counties have never done at this scale.
New York City has also tried to decompress its shelters, which typically hold more than 57,000 people, by sending homeless people into hotels and other temporary lodging. But only about 3,500 typically live on the streets there, compared to tens of thousands in California's largest cities.
Some homeless advocates in California say officials should be working much more quickly given the fast-moving pandemic. In San Francisco, which has moved more than 1,000 of its estimated 8,000 homeless into hotels, nonprofits raised money to get rooms for some who couldn't get them. Activists have pleaded with Mayor London Breed to do more.
St. Anthony's charity quickly got rooms nearby for 22 people who were staying at its seasonal overnight shelter. Felicia Senigar, the charity's housing clinic manager, said she cried along with residents as they got socks, hygiene kits, a $50 Walgreens gift card and a bag of groceries. The housing will last for 30 days.
"They had nowhere to go, and for us to send them out there while this was going on," Senigar said, choking up.
Newsom announced in late March that federal funding would help pay for at least 15,000 hotel rooms during the pandemic. But Los Angeles County, with the state’s largest concentration of homeless people at about 60,000, set its own goal of 15,000 rooms. By Wednesday, the county had housed about 1,800 people at two dozen hotels. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger has said the process was more complicated than officials anticipated, but predicted the numbers would rise.
In his new budget this week, Newsom proposed spending $750 million in federal stimulus funding to buy some of the hotels to permanently house the homeless.
"It is definitely moving too slowly to meet the crisis head on," said Shayla Myers, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation in LA, which serves vulnerable populations.
Clients must be referred for a room. The names of participating hotels are guarded to protect the privacy of residents and to shield hotels from people showing up wanting a place to stay. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to pay 75% of the cost of “Project Roomkey" for homeless people who are at least 65, or have health issues, including having contracted the virus.
The Padillas say check-in consisted of a security check, health screening, a recitation of the rules and paperwork. They leave the room for errands, medical appointments or just for a bit of fresh air. Curfew is 7 p.m. and temperatures are checked when people return.
Most people with the virus experience fever and cough for up to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems can face severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority recover.
The shelter was good about promoting hygiene and implementing social distancing rules, the couple say, but some of their fellow residents didn’t take the threat seriously.
"People were getting mad that they couldn’t sit together at lunch tables," said Nito Padilla.
Bobby Daniel, who is 65 and was living in his car, says he knew the pandemic was a big deal when cafes shuttered and he could no longer linger over an espresso, working on his laptop.
He was surprised and elated when he got into a Los Angeles hotel room after years trying to get indoors. At one of two hotels run by St. Joseph Center, he has water and soap to tend to his ear, where doctors recently excised a growth. Daniel is free to leave the hotel to exercise and uses a microwave to steam kale, chard and broccoli, a luxury he didn’t have in the decade he’s lived in his car.
"You feel hopeful, you feel peaceful, you feel fortunate, you feel grateful," Daniel says. "It’s almost hard to believe."
The isolation can be tough for people used to being on crowded streets, in encampments or shelters, said Jennifer Hark Dietz, the executive director at PATH, a homeless services nonprofit in Los Angeles.
"So our staff are doing a lot of what we’re calling 'emotional wellness checks'. Just talking to folks over the phone. Letting them know we’re here to support them. Making sure they are connected to others," she said.
Caseworkers provide books and puzzles and the rooms have TVs to help pass the time. Residents get fresh air breaks and at one hotel, a walking path in the parking lot allows for socially-distanced strolls.
As director of outreach for the nonprofit The People Concern, Shari Lachin spearheads efforts to get people off the streets stretching from Hollywood to Skid Row in downtown LA. It's not always easy to convince people to take a hotel room.
Caseworkers had multiple conversations with a man in his mid-60s named Billy who slept on the streets near LA’s Echo Park, Lachin said. He was reluctant to move into a hotel despite struggling with diabetes, asthma and a heart condition. Then he changed his mind and has "done a total 180."
In San Francisco, officials agreed to house 13 of those put up by St. Anthony's, said executive director Anthony Ramirez. He's grateful but he looks out in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where about 2,000 people continue crowding into tents or sleeping on cardboard, and wishes the city were doing more.
"There’s going to be a time to reflect when this is all said and done: What went wrong, what didn’t, were there voids in leadership?" he said. "At least we're seeing some traction."