Empty hotels including the Radisson Hotel in East Oakland are being used as part of Alameda County's Operation Safer Ground to shelter homeless residents who are at risk from the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Alameda County Emergency Operations Center)

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Alameda County has housed some 70 homeless residents in local hotel rooms during the novel coronavirus pandemic with plans for hundreds more, a spokeswoman for the county said.

The county is operating about 400 rooms at the Radisson Hotel and the Comfort Inn and Suites, both on Edes Avenue in Oakland, to house homeless residents during the pandemic, including those who have already tested positive for the virus or who may be at a higher risk of being exposed.

The state’s Department of Social Services secured contracts with the two hotels on behalf of Alameda County. The state has also provided 91 trailers to the city of Oakland to house homeless residents.

The Comfort Inn and Suites, dubbed Operation Comfort, will house homeless residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus and those who are showing symptoms or who have been exposed to someone who has the virus. Ailing residents sheltered at the hotel will also receive medical treatment.

“Alameda County began referrals with the first population, so that anyone with a potential infection could quickly be moved away from others into supportive isolation,” county spokeswoman Jerri Randrup said in an email Thursday.

The county will accept referrals at the hotel from official partner organizations and entities such as hospitals and clinics, homeless shelters, street outreach teams and Santa Rita Jail. County officials have already distributed referral information to more than 100 local service providers.

‘Operation Safer Ground’

The Radisson Hotel, part of what county officials are calling Operation Safer Ground, will house homeless residents who are older than 65 or have an underlying health disorder that may put them at higher risk to contract the virus.

County officials have been able to intake about 10 to 15 people each day since the two sites launched last week, said Kerry Abbott, director of the county’s Office of Homeless Care and Coordination.

Homeless advocates have argued that the county’s efforts are moving at a glacial pace considering the county has some 8,000 homeless residents, more than 6,000 of whom are unsheltered.

“As we are seeing played out in tragic ways, the pandemic has exposed the injustice fault lines in our society,” said Needa Bee, founder of homeless advocacy group The Village in Oakland. “The response, or lack of response, will make this clear.”

Abbott countered that the units are “filling up quickly by any normal standards,” considering the two sites opened roughly one week ago.

Abbott also said the county expects intake to increase “once we’re playing on multiple fronts” as hotel room procurement expands to other parts of the county, some of which could be folded in under the Operation Safer Ground banner.

“I’m so amazingly proud of our staff and … all of our service providers for banding together to find these folks and bring them to a place of safety,” Abbott said.

The county’s Health Care Services Agency has identified eligible residents for Operation Safer Ground with help from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development database.

The county is operating the hotels in coordination with the state’s Project Roomkey, an initiative to procure thousands of hotel rooms and trailers to house homeless residents during the pandemic.

Thousands more rooms planned

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that the state received the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s approval to launch the program. Newsom said the state aims to procure some 15,000 rooms for the initiative’s first phase and had acquired nearly 7,000 as of Friday.

FEMA will subsidize up to 75 percent of the state and local government expenses required to procure the unused rooms as well as supporting meal, custodial and security services.

Alameda County is participating in the initiative and will seek FEMA reimbursement for its expenses procuring contracts with subsequent hotels and motels.

Homeless advocates have also called for the seizure of empty housing units and homes in Oakland for use to shelter homeless residents during the pandemic, a step county and local governments have yet to take in the Bay Area.

Alameda County officials are still seeking contracts for an additional 300 units, according to Randrup. The county has identified a preliminary total of roughly 4,000 units at some 50 hotels and motels that could potentially be used to house homeless residents.

County officials are also participating in twice-weekly teleconferences with officials from other counties to coordinate the regional response to homelessness during the pandemic.

“Our goal is to secure rooms quickly at a competitive price, and we hope to have geographic diversity for our residents across the county in need of assistance,” Randrup said.