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.
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.”
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.
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