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California Turned Pandemic Rentals Into Permanent Housing For Homeless People

Joshua Ray, a social worker with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, inside one of the apartments of the building tribal leaders bought in Lakeport, Calif., through Homekey.
Beth LaBerge
Joshua Ray, a social worker with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, inside one of the apartments of the building tribal leaders bought in Lakeport, Calif., through Homekey.

A year ago, Cheyanne Wright was pregnant and living with her 4-year old son, her boyfriend and his mother. And things were not going well.

"I would say for six months, it was really bad," Wright said.

Wright and her boyfriend hadn't intended to crash with his mom. They had moved to the Central Valley city of Stockton to find their own place. But all the rentals they saw were too expensive. So her boyfriend's mom said they could stay with her. But that was a problem, too.

They were fighting a lot. And after one blowup his mom threw their furniture in the garage. Space got even tighter after Wright gave birth to their son, Romeo.

"I was just worrying about where we're going to stay the next night. Or what we're going to eat. Or if I have enough gas to get somewhere," Wright said.

This kind of hidden homelessness is prevalent among Indigenous people, who make up an outsized portion of people experiencing housing insecurity or living on the street. Nationally, Native Americans have the second-highest rate of homelessness among all racial groups, behind Pacific Islanders. That often translates into overcrowding, where two or three families live under one roof, as Wright was doing back in Stockton.

With nowhere else to go, Wright reached out to Joshua Ray, who is a social worker with their tribe, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. They're headquartered in the rural town of Lakeport about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco.

Ray says homelessness and poverty are huge problems for their tribe. That's why they applied for a $1.2 million grant from the state to purchase and renovate a 10-unit apartment complex in Lakeport, Calif. It's part of a new program called Homekey, a statewide effort to quickly convert existing properties into temporary or permanent long-term housing.

Since launching in June 2020, Homekey has created nearly 6,000 new units statewide for people experiencing homelessness. They did it by cutting through a lot of red tape and using existing buildings, mostly hotels and motels, but also vacation rentals, a college dormitory, single-family houses, office buildings and apartment buildings.

Turning unused hotels into housing became more than just a dream during the pandemic

As the coronavirus started to spread, California scrambled to get thousands of homeless seniors and people with medical conditions into hotels and motels.

"We had commercial hotels that were not being utilized because of the pandemic," said Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of the policy group All Home. "And we had a public health crisis where our unhoused neighbors were most vulnerable."

California began renting hotel rooms throughout the state for unhoused people, but those were always meant to be temporary. Officials had to come up with a plan for what would happen next. The state then launched Homekey to buy some of those sites and turn them into permanent housing. Marin County bought an 18-room hotel called Casa Buena. That's where 73-year-old Michele Griffin Young has been living for the past four months.

Michele Griffin Young, 73, moved into the Casa Buena hotel in February. Before the pandemic, she had been living in her car with her son. The Casa Buena is one of 94 Homekey sites.
Erin Baldassari / KQED
Michele Griffin Young, 73, moved into the Casa Buena hotel in February. Before the pandemic, she had been living in her car with her son. The Casa Buena is one of 94 Homekey sites.

Before the pandemic she was living in her car with her son John Young. It was hard to keep insulin cold for John's diabetes.

"We'd just have to go to the store and get ice, you know, bags of ice and put it in the cooler," Griffin Young said. The two moved to a Travelodge and Griffin Young says getting the room was a lifeline.

"We had a refrigerator to keep the insulin in. We had a microwave we could heat up whatever we needed to eat," Griffin Young said.

Then a few months ago they moved to Casa Buena, a two-story hotel on a small side street next to the freeway.

"I mean there was food every morning and food every night. And our own showers and bathrooms," Griffin Young said. "It was just fantastic."

The idea of turning hotels into housing had been talked about for years, said Jason Elliott, who works for California Gov. Gavin Newsom on housing policy.

"Everyone always says I wish we could," Elliot said. "And the pandemic provided us with an opportunity to go from I wish we could to we will."

Homekey may be what brings the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians back home

Joshua Ray, the social worker with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, says the units in the apartment complex they bought through Homekey were run-down, but the building has since been renovated with a fresh coat of paint, laminate wood flooring, a new roof and new appliances — including air conditioning. He hopes the complex will become a small modern-day village, with Native people lifting each other up.

"The goal is for me to help you become better than you were when you moved in here. To get you a better job. You're going to be saving money," he said, money that could go toward a down payment.

In Lake County, Native Americans make up about 4% of the general population but account for over 22% of the homeless population, according to the county's 2021 point-in-time homeless count.

Part of the problem is that the tribe of a little more than 300 doesn't have its own reservation.

Cheyanne Wright at the apartment building where she lives with her two children in Lakeport, Calif., on May 14.
Beth LaBerge / KQED
Cheyanne Wright at the apartment building where she lives with her two children in Lakeport, Calif., on May 14.

"We don't have a big tribe, but we do have a tribe that doesn't have housing," said Ray. "We don't have a reservation, so we got to think outside the box."

The story of how the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians lost their land is rooted in our country's origin story. It's a history of disenfranchisement, relocation and assimilation forged by European settlers and the federal government, with the goal of eliminating tribes and erasing Native culture.

But two government policies, in particular, were most harmful: the termination of tribal status and the voluntary relocation of Native people off their reservation and into urban cities.

"Our members didn't know it then, but it was part of an assimilation," said Patricia Franklin, a former council member with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. "Where the hopes from the government was that we would marry in and pretty much not really be Native anymore."

As a result of these programs, about 70% of Scotts Valley tribal members had relocated to the Bay Area by the 1970s. After a years-long court battle, the tribe had its status restored in 1992, but its homeland was never replaced.

Franklin says homelessness is one of the effects of relocation her tribe still lives with today. Now she's hoping the Lakeport apartments can start to bring them home.

"It's a tough thing when you don't have a place to call home and lay your head," Franklin said. "I want my tribe to have a home, too."

The government paying for homeless housing for Native people is long overdue, says Colleen Echohawk, the founder of the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness.

Echohawk says Native-led shelters or housing projects like the one in Lake County are critical to building trust and community.

"When we build our own housing, when we own our own housing, when we run our own housing, we're continuing to message that we are healing, that we are resilient," Echohawk said.

Members of the Scotts Valley Tribe hope the apartment building in Lakeport can be a start.

Some of the apartments are still being renovated, but every month more tribal members are moving in, including Wright and her family.

"When I saw the apartments here, I was like, oh, it's actually really big," Wright said. "You have a big living room, two big bedrooms, a tub. Usually you don't get tubs."

Her 4-year-old likes it a lot, too. He has his own room now. And at $450 a month, the rent is something Wright and her boyfriend can afford.

She looks out from the second floor deck and takes in the view of Clear Lake. It was once a rich resource for her tribe, where they would fish and harvest tule reeds to make boats and even entire homes.

"I can figure out what I want to do for my future and my kids' future," Wright said. "Feels very rewarding because my kids get to grow up in a happy, healthy situation and a home."

Homekey doesn't solve the problem but it's a step toward fixing it

In Marin County, Michele Griffin Young and her son were thankful for the chance to live in a safe, stable place. But for John, it came too late.

His mom says the 32-year-old's kidneys started to fail when they were living in the car. Then his eyesight started to deteriorate not long after that. He died in the middle of the night after the move to Casa Buena.

But those few extra months indoors bought them a little more time together.

"And I just can't tell you how much it helped to keep us going as long as we did," Griffin Young said. "It was really incredible.

It's already become a national model with Washington, Oregon and the city of Baltimore following in California's footsteps, according to Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Congress recently approved $5 billion to turn hotels across the country into housing, and California recently approved nearly a $3 billion expansion of Homekey over the next two years. Advocates say it can't come soon enough. At last count, more than 161,000 people were homeless in California.

Copyright 2021 KQED

Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
Erin Baldassari