Daniel Thomas, a health care worker, sits in a hotel in Old Town, April 9, 2020. San Diego County has been using hotels to isolate people from COVD-19 since the pandemic began, and has extended the program through June 30. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Days before residents with nowhere else to go were preparing to be removed, San Diego County extended its troubled COVID-19 hotel sheltering program through June 30.

The federal money used to pay for the program was supposed to run out next month and the 99 remaining residents were expected to be out of the hotels by Sunday, but it was announced this week that President Joe Biden extended federal coverage of COVID-19 response costs until July.

The county has already asked for nearly $100 million in reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the program, which doesn’t include the latest three-month extension, county spokesperson Michael Workman said.

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While the extension gives residents three additional months, officials are urging them to continue working with county contractors to find permanent housing, according to an email obtained by inewsource. Workman said most of the people remaining in the program are set to receive housing assistance.

Shera Beem, who has been staying at one of the county-run hotels for over a year, said she and her husband were given a housing voucher and have some leads on a new place to live, but just needed a couple more months, she said. They were expecting to be kicked out Sunday but can now breathe a sigh of relief.

“It’s like a big weight taken off (our shoulders),” she said, adding that her health has declined and she was worried about having to live out of her car. 

Costing at least $5.2 million a month, the hotel program is the first of its kind and has been praised for its success in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. But inewsource reporting since the program began in March 2020 has revealed mismanagement, neglect and harassment of guests staying at the hotels.

County officials took over the Crowne Plaza and other hotels at the start of the pandemic to temporarily house people who needed somewhere to isolate — many of whom are unhoused and might be struggling with mental illness or substance abuse disorders. The county did not provide updated numbers by publication on how many people the program has served, but as of mid-December it was roughly 13,700.

With data, documents and dozens of interviews, inewsource exposed an array of problems at the hotels, which were later confirmed by a blistering evaluation released by San Diego State University in August. The evaluation also said the county’s contractor, Equus Workforce Solutions, was unqualified to run the program and employed poorly trained staff, who forced residents to suffer through long delays for much-needed medication and who allowed gaps in services that may have led to overdoses and suicide.

At least seven people have died in the program, according to records obtained from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office. Five deaths have been linked to overdoses.

On Dec. 3, the county extended its $140.6 million contract with Equus to last through the end of March, effectively ending the program. County officials haven’t said how the extension of FEMA reimbursements will affect the contract with Equus.

The hotel program has two components: isolation and high-risk hotels. 

People who come in contact with the coronavirus and have nowhere to quarantine — including first responders who needed to be away from family, as well as people without housing — were sent to an isolation hotel. Workman said this portion of the program is still set to end Sunday. 

Unhoused people who have underlying medical conditions were given a room in a high-risk hotel. Some have been living there for a year or longer, and will now have until June 30 to find other housing.

“Oh my God, I feel like I can breathe,” said San Diego homeless advocate Amie Zamudio, a co-founder of Housing 4 the Homeless who has been helping place people into hotels and find permanent housing.

Some residents of the program she has worked with have filled out 10 to 15 housing applications with no luck, she said, and the possibility of becoming homeless come Sunday was causing stress and anxiety.

“When you have folks who have been traumatized by the street,” she said, “that fear is resurfacing and it’s caused some of the folks to become almost paralyzed in moving forward because of the anxiety. So extending (the program) to the 30th is going to help tremendously.”

According to Zamudio, the county’s temporary lodging program is some of the best work the region has ever seen. It wasn’t perfect, she said, but it kept medically compromised people off the streets. 

She is fighting for county officials to continue the program even after the FEMA funding runs out in July.

“It is a grave mistake to end this program,” she said.