A new hotel near the San Francisco Premium Outlets opened its doors last week as an emergency shelter for older and medically fragile homeless people who would otherwise have difficulty practicing social distancing.

The entire 112-room Residence Inn by Marriott Livermore at 5200 Wolf House Drive in Livermore is being leased through an agreement between Alameda County and the hotel owner, R.I. Heritage Inn of Livermore, LLC. The emergency shelter program called Operation Safer Grounds, is funded through state and federal funding sources available for COVID-19 response.

“I think it’s remarkable that we have a hotel that hasn't been open to the public yet, willing to step up to serve a fragile population,” Livermore City Councilman Robert Carling said.

Carling, who serves on the council’s Homelessness Subcommittee, said finding hotel operators willing to house homeless people has been a challenge, despite high vacancy rates, in part because some hotel operators refused to lodge people based on their housing status.

Public health experts report that people experiencing homelessness are at high risk during the coronavirus pandemic, because they often lack access to basic hygiene facilities, are exposed to the elements, or live in congregate shelters and encampments, where social distancing isn’t possible. This can lead to further spread of COVID-19. Many also have underlying medical conditions.

The public health risk to the homeless is particularly acute in Alameda County, which was already enduring a homelessness crisis when the pandemic arrived. Alameda County’s homeless population increased by 50% to an estimated 8,000 people between 2015 and 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Livermore hotel is being leased as part of an ambitious statewide response to secure up to 15,000 hotel rooms and trailers as temporary shelter for homeless people during the pandemic. Since the initial rush to secure emergency shelter in the first three months of the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched a partnership between the state and counties backed by $1.3 billion in eligible funding to acquire and rehabilitate a variety of permanent housing types for homeless Californians.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors approved spending up to $5 million to lease the hotel on a month-to-month basis through the end of the year at a daily rate of $200 for occupied rooms and $120 for vacant ones. The agreement also includes three meals per day for an additional $40 per person.

This does not include an additional $1 million in expenses anticipated for wrap-around services, including security, property management and transportation. Under a separate contract, Fremont-based nonprofit Abode Services will provide those services.

Alameda County has secured 1,200 hotel rooms and trailers. About 200 of the rooms in Oakland have been set aside to quarantine people who have tested positive for the virus, were exposed to a person known to be infected with COVID-19, or who are showing symptoms.

Of the 1,200 rooms, about 900 are occupied, according to Kerry Abbott, the county’s director of Homeless Care and Coordination. Residents include, single adults, couples, and parents and caregivers with children, so the actual number of people currently housed in the rooms is more than 1,000, Abbott said.

How long the county can continue providing shelter will depend largely on funding decisions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. The Livermore hotel lease could stretch to as long as May 31, 2022, based on the lease terms.

At the Livermore site, the county's top priority is to provide immediate emergency shelter for homeless people over the age of 65; those with specific chronic health conditions, such as heart, lung and blood disorders; those who are pregnant; or those with other conditions that place them at risk of complications from COVID-19 exposure.

The first residents started moving in Aug. 24. By the end of the week, nearly 30 rooms were occupied.

Abbott said check-ins have been staggered to provide a less chaotic opening and introduction for residents. That was made challenging as the hotel was also used last week to house some people evacuated from the nearby SCU Lightning Complex fire. Now that evacuations in Alameda County have lifted, Abbott said the hotel is expected to be full within a few weeks.

In the meantime, she said the county government, cities and nonprofits that work with the homeless will coordinate efforts to try to locate permanent housing for as many residents of the temporary shelter program as possible.

“No one wants people to have to exit back out into homelessness,” Abbott said.

Christine Beitsch-Bahmani, CEO of CityServe of the Tri-Valley, said the hotel shelter program is a temporary solution that could be used to address difficult issues associated with homelessness, such as substance abuse, mental health and heartbreak from family conflicts and dysfunctions.

Soon after the March shelter-in-place orders, CityServe, under contracts with Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin, scrambled to help find hotel rooms to shelter older and medically at-risk homeless residents.

Having people living in a single location where they can reliably be reached helps facilitate more intensive casework than can typically be achieved with people living on the streets, Beitsch-Bahmani said. Caseworkers were able to help those who have been on the streets replace lost IDs and secure copies of vital records needed for social security and disability payments for which some qualified, but were not receiving. Four clients were able to find permanent housing.

“(Temporary housing is) a good stepping-stone to permanent placement, because it gets them to a place where they are stabilized,” she said.

Beitsch-Bahmani further explained that trying to place people into apartments or homes straight from the street is much more difficult.

Trying to place people into apartments or homes) straight from the street, is much more difficult.”