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Tucson moves some homeless into hotels to decrease coronavirus spread
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Tucson moves some homeless into hotels to decrease coronavirus spread

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

The Tucson City Council approved an agreement with two local hotels to house homeless people who show signs or having COVID-19 or have the virus. Others who have underlying health problems that puts them at risk of catching the virus are also being sheltered in hotel rooms.

In an effort to prevent a surge of coronavirus cases through one of Tucson’s most-vulnerable populations, city officials have started moving members of the homeless community who might be showing virus symptoms or are at risk of contracting it into a pair of undisclosed hotels.

Thirty-three people — 22 falling into the at-risk category and 11 who were displaying symptoms — were moved out of homeless shelters or off the streets and into the two hotels on Friday, according to Liz Morales, director of the city’s housing and development department.

“We know they are high-risk and so many of them do have other underlying conditions because with their homelessness status they have not been able to take care of their health conditions,” Morales said. “They are definitely much more vulnerable to this.”

She added that the hotels help the homeless community adhere to guidelines from the U.S. Centers and Disease Control and Prevention to help slow the spread of the virus, including social distancing.

“It’s very dangerous for them to be in close proximity. Our shelters had to decrease the capacity to try to separate people. But the problem is a lot of them are still in large groups,” Morales said, noting they’ve already seen at least one case of COVID-19 in a local shelter. “This is the first step of doing something critical in slowing the spread.”

Program funded by federal grant

The agreements with the hotels were signed last week after the City Council unanimously passed a motion during Tuesday’s council meeting to allow them.

One hotel has 200 rooms for those who may have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk should they contract the virus, while the other has 115 rooms for people who are showing symptoms or have tested positive for the virus, Morales said.

The agreements are on a month-to-month basis at a total of $558,000 a month — $69 per room at one site and $40 at the other. The funding is coming through grants, including a portion of $4.8 million the department received through the federal CARES Act, Morales said.

Morales declined to say which hotels the city is using, citing privacy concerns, and asked a reporter to file an open-records request for the information.

“We’re talking about people who have conditions and so with that we need to treat those with upmost privacy and confidentiality,” she said.

The practice of using hotels for the homeless has been prevalent in a number of other places, most notably in California, where officials have committed to moving 15,000 homeless into hotels across the state in an effort Gov. Gavin Newsom has dubbed “Project Roomkey.”

In Tucson, officials said the idea spawned out of regular calls held with a number of stakeholders in the homeless community, including city and county officials, shelter representatives, health-care providers and employment centers.

Councilman Steve Kozachik, who has been participating in the calls, said the hotels offered an answer to the question of many shelter operators: “What do I do if someone comes here and they’re sick?”

“Telling them to find a place under a bridge or in a park is not the answer,” Kozachik said. “It’s a necessary option because of the capacity issues. When you have shelter in place and the existing bed space is exhausted, we had to come up with another option.”

He added that the city received a lot of interest from hotels when it solicited bids, adding that it’s a “win-win” situation as the hotel industry as a whole has been hit by a drop in business due to travel restrictions related to the virus.

“If the need expands, we have others to go back to,” he said.

“Give them shelter”

The project has also garnered the support of Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who said the hotels are part of a larger effort to develop a protocol for any homeless who might be sick.

“The strongest tool we have is social distancing and staying at home. These individuals don’t have a home,” Romero said.

“One of the most important things we can try and do is give them shelter.”

Asked if she believes this is the best available option to abate the problem, she said that “right now, this is the option that we have.”

“There are many layers of need that they have. We can only do what we can,” Romero said. “We have to make sure we are paying attention to the homeless community.

“The more we pay attention to this, we have a process to this, the more we can contain the spread.”

Morales said the process for transferring homeless to the hotels primarily starts in the shelters, but also on the streets. Those who may fit the criteria to live in the sites are evaluated by health screeners.

Those who qualify are processed through the Sullivan Jackson Employment Center, which is serving electronically as the program’s hub, and then moved to the hotels either by medical transport or Sun Van, depending on symptoms and health status.

Morales said that, so far, everyone who has moved into a hotel room has done so voluntarily.

“So far, at least with the shelter residents, they’re quite relieved. ... They’ve cooperated and agreed to do this,” Morales said, adding that those who no longer show symptoms can be transferred back to the shelters.

Morales said she doesn’t know how long the hotels will be necessary, saying it could be anywhere from 30 to 90 days — or longer. But she said it will make a big impact in slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Tucson’s vulnerable populations.

The next steps will be to determine how to use the remaining funding provided from the CARES Act, with Morales noting the most-pressing issues the city has seen so far are with food insecurity.

She said she’ll be working with local and state partners to determine that need and will be presenting options to the mayor and council “in short order.”

Romero, too, stressed the importance of federal funding, adding that she’s concerned about available resources and that the grants are a good start in covering “the needs that we have.”

tests are still lacking

She said she believes the most pressing issue is the lack of widespread testing — not only for the homeless population, but for the region as a whole — and until that problem is solved, “it seems like all the solutions we have in front of us are temporary.”

“If we don’t have widespread testing, whatever community we are concerned about — whether it’s homeless, first responders, health-care workers or grocery store workers — we’re not going to feel comfortable in the reality of the number of people positive out there,” she said.

“That is going to be the crux of the problem to plan ahead and how we move forward. Not just the homeless community, but every individual out there in Tucson in Pima County.”

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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