Berkeley hotels

Last Days at the Radisson: As State Shelter program winds down, former homeless residents of Oakland prepare for next steps

Nearly two-thirds of the 2,100 people who left Project Roomkey in Alameda County have found permanent housing, compared to less than 30% of those leaving emergency shelters. Abbott credits the privacy of hotels and housing resources available at sites with getting more people off the streets in the first place.

It comes with a hefty price tag. According to a county report, Roomkey costs about $260 per night per person, while group shelters cost about $50.

Statewide, the program has not had the same level of success. In February, 22% of Roomkey participants left for permanent housing, while 15% returned to the streets and 18% to unknown destinations. Another 35% moved out to temporary accommodation or collective shelter, while 10% moved to institutions or other destinations.

Still, as Roomkey goes to bed, Abbott says his office is pushing the program’s lessons forward.

“The pandemic has permanently changed our view of shelters,” she says, explaining that the county is looking to increase its non-congregate housing capacity. “We are transforming our system rather than letting this really important intervention go away.”

‘The devil is in the details’

For Tajanik Thompson, the prospect of a private bedroom and bathroom sold her on Project Roomkey. Now 31, Thompson had preferred the streets to shelters since her teens, choosing tents or cars over sleeping in a dorm with strangers.

Like Cage, Thompson says she was working to improve her situation when the Project Roomkey offer came up. She had quit prostitution, but getting clean and dealing with her mental health issues on the streets was not easy “because of my environment”, she says.

“I was in West Oakland,” she says, “and it’s just drugs everywhere, just surrounded.”

Tajanik Thompson sits outside a former Comfort Inn that has been converted into supportive housing. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thompson, who grew up in Oakland, was kidnapped as a teenager and forced into prostitution, according to news reports. She had been living on the streets since then and says she was assaulted several times. Between worrying about her safety and staying warm and getting food, there wasn’t much energy to meet with advisers, search for documents and all the other steps necessary to align housing.

“What the hotels have done is they’ve given stability to a population that otherwise wouldn’t have it,” says Andrea Henson, an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center and longtime advocate for homeless.

Thompson says she must be alone at the Radisson. She did a program for the first time in her life. She enrolled in a GED program and began working with a therapist and a housing navigator.

“I was able to think, period,” she says. “I had peace of mind. I was able to get away from everything and everyone.

a black woman with bright red braids eats a take-out lunch at a table in a motel lobby in front of an orange wall and a display case full of brochures
Tajanik Thompson sits in the lobby of Project Homekey housing, a former Comfort Inn, after receiving lunch. She lives in the hotel while waiting for permanent accommodation. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“The Roomkey project is successful because so many people support the residents,” says Henson, noting that the support network that made the program successful extended far beyond Roomkey staff.

Thompson, for example, found herself moved from one Roomkey case manager to another, feeling left in the dark about her housing prospects. Then Kai Gault, an outreach specialist for the Homeless Action Center, stepped in to guide her case.

“It’s Kai who’s been there for me, letting me know things, giving me updates,” she says.

When Thompson couldn’t get answers from her Roomkey case manager, her anxiety increased. It often fell to Gault to sort things out and allay Thompson’s fears, although Gault also had trouble contacting staff.

A black woman wearing a black suit and glasses sits in front of a blue and red mural that reads
Kai Gault, a housing navigator, sits outside the Homeless Action Center in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“My experience with Roomkey, in particular, is that some of these sites are staffed by people who are not competent to help people with disabilities – mental or physical disabilities,” says Gault. “Sometimes they don’t understand how the system really works. I had to explain how the document collection process works, which is a pretty basic part of it.

Today, Thompson is working with Gault to prepare to move into permanent supportive housing. There is an apartment designated for her, but it’s in a new building that isn’t quite ready for her to move in yet, and Thompson gets nervous. In the meantime, she moved from the Radisson to the nearby Comfort Inn, a former Roomkey site now owned by the county through Project Homekey, a separate state-sponsored program that buys motels, hotels and office buildings for conversion. in long-term housing. . But Thompson will not stay.

“I’m ready to get the hell out of here,” says Thompson, who, like other Roomkey residents, has complained of moldy walls and crowbar marks in bedroom doors from forced entries. .

Gault expects Thompson to move into his apartment this month.