As local governments all over the country are scrambling to provide housing for homeless residents, two San Diego activists sprung to action to shelter vulnerable people in motel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. With support from the local community, the group has raised over $30,000 through GoFundMe and Fundly for Hotel Vouchers 4 All. They have secured housing for 70 people and provided 30 additional individuals with vital services.
As part of a response to the pandemic, the city of San Diego has turned the Convention Center into a makeshift shelter, housing over 1,000 homeless residents with the hopes of providing a permanent solution in the near future. Aside from limitations social distancing presents in this setting, the decision has been fraught with other challenges. For example, men and women are separated, so families cannot stay together. So far, two homeless individuals have tested positive for coronavirus.
“We didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy,” said Tasha Williamson, one of two founders of Hotel Vouchers 4 All. “We’ll help whoever we can.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic became a public emergency, Williamson partnered with Amie Zamudio, collaborating with local agencies and nonprofits to provide customized support for people in crisis. They reached out to those who were living on the streets and to residents in communities of color living below poverty who were cited for lack of compliance during the lockdown order. The news of their program spread via word of mouth, email and social media. At one point, the police reached out to them for help in sheltering a homeless veteran.
Zamudio and Williamson, both have personal experiences with homelessness.
“My father died homeless on the streets in the 90s and he had leukemia,” said Zamudio. “And I still acknowledge that even with his white privilege, he died homeless.”
Williamson, who has been on the Section 8 waiting list for 19 years, has never been able to transition out of homelessness.
“After filing a sexual harassment complaint with the Urban League, I lost both my jobs due to retaliation from the perpetrator and me and my son and daughter became homeless,” she recounted.
Williamson’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, complicating the matters. “There was a time we were sleeping in a vehicle that I had in front of my son’s school. I didn’t want our situation to get in the way of his education.”
The two organizers live on site at the motel to offer ongoing support to the residents they have taken in. They provide the occupants with clothes, laundry detergent, water, and masks. They also serve dinner to the residents and help them navigate and access Electronic Benefit Transfer services (EBT) for other meals.
“In the beginning, Amie was spending money on motel rooms and I was spending money on clothes and hygiene items like sanitary napkins for women,” Williamson said. “Everything people needed to keep them out of survival mode, we provided.”
They quickly streamlined the admittance process for potential occupants. The pair conducts intake over the phone, recording basic information as well as the applicant’s location – living in their car, streets, or another motel.
“People who have symptoms, we direct them to the COVID-19 Task Force,” Williamson said. The local government then houses those individuals in isolation.
The intake also includes inquiry about the applicant’s mental health and drug use. Understandably, every applicant has experienced or is currently grappling with some level of anxiety and depression. But the program doesn’t currently have the resources to deal with those suffering from severe mental illness and drug addiction. The organizers do their best to help them obtain support elsewhere.
“It’s a difficult process, it’s a long process, and it’s a heart wrenching process,” said Williamson.
Once applicants are admitted, they often go through an adjustment period. Some are not used to the confinement of walls or sleeping on beds. Some have health issues. Organizers have connected with medical and behavioral health teams to provide video conferencing or visits to the site. Zamudio has taken occupants to their doctor and dental appointments, including a colonoscopy and an emergency dental surgery.
For Curtis, an occupant who suffers from Chronic Anxiety Disorder, the Convention Center isn’t an option. Sheltering with other people exacerbates his condition.
“I can’t be in confined areas with people,” he said, adjusting his mask. Curtis has been housing insecure for the past five years. He was about to receive an orientation for his Section 8 housing voucher when the pandemic began. Since then, he hasn’t been able to secure his voucher for permanent housing. He spends much of his time corresponding with government agencies to get his transition started again.
The motel houses both individuals and families, including a single mother of two children.
Some residents have health issues, such as an African American man who just had heart surgery prior to the lockdown orders. “He was living on the streets, literally on the ground,” Williamson said.
Another resident, 48-year-old army veteran Shane, is suffering from leukemia and several other health conditions. He hasn’t been able to obtain support from Veteran Affairs. “I absolutely get no help being a veteran. They dropped me like a rotten sack of potatoes,” Shane said. “If it wasn’t for [Williamson and Zamudio], I probably would have died.”
During the past month, the Williamson and Zamudio have experienced unexpected challenges.
The crowd-sourcing site, GoFundMe froze their account without warning, demanding they provide receipts for the motel rooms acquired through fundraising efforts. Frozen funds meant they couldn’t secure the rooms and the occupants were asked to leave. “It caused a lot of anxiety,” Williamson said. “People were standing in the parking lot.”
Some were so distraught, they left. Another activist, Loxie Gant, helped sort the issue out. Receipts were provided and the funds became available again. Once the payment for rooms was made, Williamson and Zamudio set out to find those who had left the premises and brought them back to the motel. A nonprofit fiscally sponsored the program for larger and tax-deductible donations, and Gant created the Fundly site.
Williamson and Zamudio have negotiated with the motel to bring the cost to around $50 a night for the occupants. The average daily cost per hotel room, including ancillary services purchased by the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency, is between $180 and $200.
Despite efforts to minimize cost, Hotel Vouchers 4 All only has enough funds to continue the program for another week.
Given the financial strains, the organizers would like the County of San Diego to take over funding this project. Invisible People reached out to the Communications Officer of the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency for additional comments, but the agency has not responded.
Williamson believes local governments across the country failed in their pandemic response due to a lack of consistency and coordination.
“During the pandemic, the city should be open 24 hours, because people are having crises 24-hours a day,” Williamson said.
Williamson and Zamudio, who are volunteers, receive phone calls throughout the day and in the middle of the night. “The least you could have done during a pandemic is, instead of laying people off, having people do customer service over the phone.”
For Curtis, the uncertainty of his situation is the biggest stressor. Standing in the parking lot near the lobby, his gaze shifts to somewhere in the distance. “Even though I’m sheltered right now, I feel like this can end right now,” he said. “I fight every day as if it’s my last day on the phone, fighting to get to a stable and secure place. How long will this last?”