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With a COVID program ending, some 6,000 people living in motels need to move

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Since the pandemic started, California moved people off of the streets and housed them in hotels and motels to prevent COVID from spreading in homeless camps. Since then, Project Roomkey has served more than 50,000 people. But now, with funding drying up, the remaining sites are closing. Vanessa Rancano from member station KQED reports that some 6,000 people now need to find new housing.

VANESSA RANCANO, BYLINE: After 22 years living on the streets or behind bars, Horace Cage is moving into his own apartment in Oakland. Hey.

HORACE CAGE: How are you doing?

RANCANO: How are you doing?

CAGE: Putting together my furniture. Some of my furniture just got here.

RANCANO: Oh, good.

Inside the sunny one-bedroom, his dog is happily gnawing on a bone. Cage has picked out new rugs and furniture.

CAGE: The dining room. We haven't seen the kitchen yet.

RANCANO: Cage was part of the last wave of Roomkey placements here in Alameda County. At the beginning of the pandemic, he was living in an RV but later moved into a hotel room. With his hotel closing by the end of summer, he needed a permanent place to live. By late June, he had one.

CAGE: And this is my kitchen.

RANCANO: The place has him hopeful. He shows me one of the first things he's tacked up on the wall.

CAGE: A Christmas stocking.

RANCANO: It's mid-summer, but he's already thinking about having family over for the holidays. Cage is considered a Project Roomkey success story, transitioning from homelessness to Section 8 housing.

KERRY ABBOTT: The outcomes have just been phenomenally high in terms of getting people placed into permanent housing and, you know, not seeing people exit back to the street.

RANCANO: Kerry Abbott runs homelessness services for Alameda County. Statewide, about 20% of people who went through Project Roomkey ended up with permanent housing. Others went into temporary housing, shelters or institutions. Abbott says the main reason Project Roomkey is ending is that it's really expensive.

ABBOTT: Barring any new announcements for an extension of FEMA or the state's Roomkey program, we would need to ramp that down. And so we've been really working on housing plans for everyone.

RANCANO: There are still 60 or so people living in Alameda County's last Roomkey hotel. Vince Russo manages it for the housing nonprofit Abode Services. It's up to him and his team to find each of them somewhere else to live.

VINCE RUSSO: It's really going to be their choice. Like, if we say, look; these are the only two choices we have, really pointing out that when the Radisson closes, where do you want to be? Right? Do you want to go back to the street?

RANCANO: Across California, 15% return to the streets, including Daniella Desjardins and her family, who got bumped from one Roomkey hotel to another. They were given choices, but it wasn't that simple. The available apartments were too far away from their kids' school. The motel was also too far away from the school. They knew that wasn't sustainable. We couldn't get them there.

DANIELLA DESJARDINS: We couldn't get them to school, you know?

RANCANO: So Desjardins, her husband Michael and their three kids moved out of the hotel.

MICHAEL DESJARDINS: Yeah, we stayed in our car sometimes.

D DESJARDINS: We actually stayed in our storage unit sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We also don't mind jumping - set up in nice park and park our car outside it and just camp. It doesn't matter.

D DESJARDINS: At least you'll be to school on time every day, right?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

RANCANO: After almost two years, and with the help of a lawyer, the family finally managed to get a housing voucher for Berkeley, the city where their kids are in school. But they haven't been able to find an apartment.

D DESJARDINS: Honestly...

M DESJARDINS: I'm a little worried. I'm not wanting to live on the streets.

D DESJARDINS: We're in a scary time of changes and uncertainty.

RANCANO: Uncertain not just for Desjardins' family, but for the thousands of others leaving hotels and motels as Project Roomkey comes to an end. For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Rancano in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.