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Courtyard by Marriott on Garrity Way in Richmond is being used by the county to provide shelter to unhoused individuals

Richmond’s unhoused staying at the Courtyard by Marriott face uncertainty

on November 9, 2020

On a quiet afternoon in October, Raul Diaz tucks his hands into the pockets of his loose denim jeans and walks through the parking lot of Courtyard by Marriott on Garrity Way. 

His cloth mask, worn to protect him from contracting COVID-19, matches the plaid print and the brown shades of his button-down shirt. With his back slouched, he walks towards the hotel entrance. He pulls his mask up to cover his nose and mouth. There are a handful of people from a nonprofit organization called the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP) unloading boxes of barbecue and seafood onto a hotel trolley. 

Diaz disappears through the doors of the Marriott where he is staying. He used to live on the streets of Richmond. When the state declared shelter-in-place back in March, a county nurse who would often check on him suggested that he be moved to the hotel.

This hotel has been his home since June this year. 

Diaz returns through the doors again. He walks with purpose, but his only goal is to smoke a cigarette. It’s a habit he abandoned a long time ago, especially since he has a heart condition, but the monotony of staying at the hotel has left him looking for ways to pass the time. 

And smoking passes the time. He finds a wall to lean against and lights his cigarette.

“It’s starting to dawn on me … what’s going to happen when this virus thing is over,” he says. “Are they just going to ask us to leave?” 

Diaz is one of hundreds of unhoused individuals with underlying health conditions that have been temporarily living in two hotels, one of which is Courtyard by Marriott. The two hotels were leased by Contra Costa County — thanks to funding from the state’s Project Room Key and Project Homekey Initiatives, which offered counties funding to rent hotel rooms to shelter unhoused people during the pandemic.

In Richmond, which has the highest number of shelter beds and the highest number of unhoused individuals in the county, officials leased the Courtyard by Marriott and a second hotel. GRIP is managing the people staying at the Marriott. 

But state funding for Project Homekey set to end on Dec. 30 — and that has the county scrambling to find a more sustainable housing solution for Richmond’s 200 or more families, all this as the nation enters its second wave of the pandemic. 

***

Many living at the Courtyard are beginning to feel a lot of uncertainty. 

Randy moved from Texas in August of this year and found himself in a situation he did not expect. Unable to cope with the high prices of California, Randy and his wife have taken a particularly hard hit since COVID-19 began. 

They found themselves at the shelter soon after his wife, who is a dialysis patient, met the criteria to stay at the hotel. By early October, Randy said his wife had gone through about five sessions of dialysis. This makes her vulnerable to the COVID-19.

Randy and his wife have been at the hotel since August, and just like Diaz, they were unsure of how much longer they will be at the hotel. 

At any given time, some of the current guests can be seen shuffling in and out of the hotel. Some choose to set up their chairs outside, getting to know one another, an activity that is strictly prohibited indoors as part of the hotel’s shelter-in-place guidelines. 

And if they choose to go out, they cannot be out for longer than two hours at a time, said Diaz. Curfew is at 10 p.m. 

They serve three meals a day. You can’t take your keys inside your room. 

You can’t smoke inside. And you can’t drink alcohol in your rooms. 

Families stay on one floor and individuals on the other. No guests are allowed inside the room. 

The boredom, said one tenant, has led to depression and picking up habits that were once abandoned. 

Unable to cope with what some call strict management, some people have chosen to leave and go back to the tents and the streets where they once lived. 

At the hotel, there are those who also wish to stay longer. Among a group sitting in the courtyard, a woman talks about how she’s been told there’s a second wave of COVID-19 coming, but she still does not know what to expect in the coming days. 

Motel 6 in Pittsburg, Calif. will be permanently converted to serve homeless residents as part of the state’s Project Homekey program | Photo by Mx. Granger
Motel 6 in Pittsburg, Calif. will be permanently converted to serve homeless residents as part of the state’s Project Homekey program | Photo by Mx. Granger

***

Kathleen Sullivan, the executive director of GRIP, says that one of the challenges she and her staff has faced is managing those already dealing with their own difficult situations. The program is using its case managers to help its clients find more stable and long-term housing, Sullivan says. It’s also providing clients with mental health services.

“We are on a month to month deal here,” Sullivan says. At the end of every month, she says she feels the uncertainty of what’s going to come next. The county can call and say that it is time to wrap up or they can say keep going. 

The county will give GRIP a 90-day notice if they have to leave the hotel. And when that happens, Sullivan expects it is going to be nothing short of a nightmare. 

The county, according to Sullivan, is currently trying to assess how many shelters in Richmond can be made available to take back some of the unhoused individuals from the hotel. 

If there was a housing and shelter shortage before COVID-19, the current situation has made the shortage even tighter: GRIP is also a 65-bed shelter. But it’s dormitory-style bunk-beds mean that it can’t allow for 65 people to live together in that space. According to the safety standards, Sullivan can only accept 15 families in her shelter if the county could no longer fund the hotel lease. 

Families, veterans and parolees will get priority when being moved from one shelter to another, Sullivan says, adding that she fears some people will not find alternative housing.

“I just know there’s not going to be a place for everybody to go, there are going to be people that land back out on the street,” she says. 

In addition to concerns that not everyone can be housed, Sullivan is also grappling with how to best serve clients with underlying health conditions.

“This is a business that is not used to this client base,” Sullivan says. “I think they just really, honestly can’t wait for us to get out of there.”  

A man urinated in the elevator, but Sullivan’s staff discovered that he could not hold his bladder because of a medical condition. But the hotel was not too happy. 

The hotel has, over time, removed their couches, and made little changes like removing their coffee machine, and taking away the bathroom washcloths and replacing them with a single hand towel. 

Dr. Jennifer Wolch, an expert on urban housing and planning at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledges that “hotel operators are not social service providers and are not used to interacting with the houseless population.”

Hotels are also not designed to be housing, she added, so there are some aspects of housing that are bound to be challenging.

In September, Contra Costa County bought Motel 6 in Pittsburgh. With 174 rooms in the motel, the county plans on housing more than 200 unhoused people at this new permanent shelter.

Wolch, whose past work has focused on homelessness and affordable housing for people below the poverty line, said she believes these efforts are commendable.

“Homeless people have often been housed in hotels and motels on an emergency basis, but the scale of these initiatives seems to be unprecedented,” she says. “This is largely because of COVID-19 and the enormous number of empty hotel rooms given the sharp drop in travel/tourism.” 

*** 

A sign asking those in need of a shelter-in-place hotel room in San Francisco | Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez for The Chronicle
A sign asking those in need of a shelter-in-place hotel room in San Francisco | Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez for The Chronicle

Raul Diaz says he plans on quitting smoking again. He has been through two heart procedures where doctors inserted stents in his heart. In 2019,  he had to go through open-heart surgery. 

He walks a lot now, he says. He feels like he is in pretty good shape. 

He prays every day, too. He believed in God when he was addicted to meth, but now he’s 57 years old. He thinks about how he’s getting closer to his death, now that he’s much older. He’s wondering how he’ll make the most of this time. 

The uncertainty of where he’ll go after Courtyard by Marriott is something he thinks about every day. He thinks about the pandemic, about when it will pass. He thinks about whether his time at the hotel will last as long as the virus is around. He feels grateful but he also feels guilt for being where he is. 

The pauses between his broken sentences are full of regret. He looks down from time to time and gets lost in the concrete beneath his feet. He does this more when he talks about his past “mistakes.”

But he finds hope too. He recently bought a car from a tow truck yard nearby.

“If nothing else works out, at least I have a car,” he says. 

7 Comments

  1. Maureen Williams on November 9, 2020 at 9:23 pm

    We have too many people homeless. They need not just a place to sleep. They need cooking facilities, room to sit with friends, and be normal people. They are just like the rest of us.

    • AnG on November 12, 2020 at 6:54 pm

      They need a job. We have trash all over the place. Why has no one put the two together. I don’t see what is wrong with having those receiving assistance from public funds help maintain public space. Of course I would love if they were able to find actual employment, but if they aren’t able to, we might as well give them something to do.

  2. Varon Brown on November 10, 2020 at 6:51 am

    Very good story. It would really be sad to see these people go back to the streets. Some shelters put you on a cot then wake you up at 6a.m, give you an unhealthy simple breakfast while they eat the good food.You have to walk around for 8-10 hours before you’re allowed back in. You then have to try and relax and get some sleep with one eye open while watching the many mentally ill and drug addicted people all around you. Being homeless is already really hard, during a pandemic makes it even worse. Real affordable housing is what is needed to help all of those with some kind of income. Everyone who has spent time in a shelter DESERVES to be able to be in a hotel so that they can catch up on sleep and get some good rest in a good bed, not a cot, bunkbed, or floormat. The way that these shelters are treating homeless people is a story that needs to be told. So I say let the homeless people stay in the hotels for as long as they can, but don’t make them feel like they’re in jail. Why are they only being allowed out for 2hrs a day? A bus ride to the dollar store (if you are lucky to be near one) will take about 4 hours by the time you wait on the bus. Do for them what you would want for yourself.
    They

  3. Grace Baker on November 10, 2020 at 10:47 am

    How in the world is it legal to allow the people to only be let out for two hours a day? Are they criminals? Is this jail? Who made these rules? Who enforces these rules? What are the consequences if you do not or cannot obey?
    If someone did not have a mental condition in the beginning being forced to abide by this two hour time limit seems like it surely could cause one, as this rule cuts out just about all opportunities to do anything other than sitting alone enclosed by four walls and a ceiling.
    All by design….

  4. lakenya carral on November 11, 2020 at 4:56 am

    The 2 hour a day rule or at any given one time I believe is what was said has a lot to do with the pandemic and not to try and make them feel as if they are in jail. Hey those of us with homes to live in should abide by those same rules as well. If we did maybe we could get a grip on this whole thing. Otherwise, those whomever think they are invincible are the biggest threat to society and to this nation. Yes we all need more than 2 hours to do what is needed to be done in order to survive but, if we as human beings the ones who are suffering through this whole ordeal don’t get this virus under control none of us would even have to think about handling any business needed to survive. Why? Because dead people can’t handle any business needed to survive. Wake up people!!! If there is a shelter in place so be it. It’ll be better in the long run if we all as a whole would cooperate and do what’s necessary to survive this pandemic. Otherwise we are not just dead but extinct. Read the Bible it’s all written anyway. Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth will give all the understanding you need. May God bless us all.

    • Theresa Drumgoole on November 13, 2020 at 1:16 pm

      Well said SIS💯😘😘😘

  5. K on November 11, 2020 at 6:19 am

    Bandaids are not going to heal the wound. The reality is you need to get people off drugs and get them metal health support so they can rejoin society. How many of the people staying in the hotels have gotten employment? There is plenty of clean up that they can do around town. How about paying them to do that? Paint over some graffiti. It would cost less to pay them a wage than what they are currently costing to house, medical, services et cetera.

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