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County commission votes against putting homeless in hotel rooms

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During a joint Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission meeting on May 19, the commissioners discussed putting about a dozen medically-vulnerable residents of GRACE (the homeless shelter) into hotel rooms, but the county commission voted to expedite permanent supportive housing instead.

Cast of characters:

County commission: Mike Byerly, Charles “Chuck” Chestnut, Ken Cornell, Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, Marihelen Wheeler

Gainesville City Commission: Mayor Lauren Poe, David Arreola, Adrian Hayes-Santos, Gail Johnson, Gigi Simmons, Harvey Ward, Helen Warren

Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health

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Jon DeCarmine, Director of GRACE Marketplace

Following the face mask vote, he two commissions moved on to a discussion of what they termed “housing,” an item that wasn’t specifically on the agenda but was discussed under the umbrella of “COVID-19 Update: County and City Response and Recovery Efforts.”

Gainesville City Commissioner Gail Johnson led off with, “We need to be worrying about our most vulnerable citizens through this COVID-19 crisis, and one of those populations is our homeless population,” specifically at GRACE Marketplace. She said there has been “a lot of guidance about how people should be housed, and that is preferably in non-congregate settings… there are people that should be housed in places like motels and hotels if possible because once they get COVID-19, then they are the most likely to have complications and ultimately die.”

City Commissioner Harvey Ward added, “Before we get deep into a discussion, I want to make it super clear that everybody, everybody I’ve ever talked to about this… everybody believes that permanent housing is the right thing to do. Nobody is trying to trade off time in a motel for permanent housing. That’s not what anybody’s trying to accomplish here. So, when that inevitably comes up, that’s not what anybody’s trying to do. We all want people to be housed.”

Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, outlined his concerns with putting people into hotels: “So right now there’s been extensive testing out at GRACE. And as of today, we have had zero cases of COVID-19 in the population out there, whether medically frail or not. So GRACE is doing a great job in terms of keeping that population free of this disease. If we were to have a case out at GRACE, or a confirmed exposure to a confirmed case, then the non-congregate housing issue would certainly kick in, and I would have no problem with supporting it. But in the absence of disease, then I think that we need to take a look at what some have called ‘harm reduction,’ and there’s also a saying that says ‘Do no harm first.’

“So to put an individual, in the absence of disease, in a motel, where there is not oversight that there is at GRACE, where there aren’t the supportive services that there is at GRACE, and where there isn’t the medical staff and the testing that there is at GRACE right now, I think would lead to some complications that, you know, we could certainly avoid.” He also said that putting a homeless person into a motel is “open-ended: I don’t know when I would ever clear them to leave the motel.”

Jon DeCarmine, Director of GRACE Marketplace, said they’ve been looking at guidance from the CDC and Housing and Urban Development, and “what we’re saying in a basic harm reduction sense is that somebody will be safer in a hotel room where they are the only person in that room, whether or not they leave for the day or go out throughout the day, than they would be in a room with 100 other people in it.” He said they’ve developed a list of 24 people that are “the most vulnerable people, either at GRACE in our pavilion, in our shelter, or on the temporary campground that we’ve set up.” These are the people who have been identified “as people who would be most at risk of bad outcomes and poor outcomes if they were to be exposed to the coronavirus.”

County Commissioner Mike Byerly asked about the source of funds for doing this and whether FEMA would reimburse the County. County Manager Michele Lieberman said, “At this point we have no reason to believe it would be reimbursable… because it doesn’t meet the criteria for these people to go into the non-congregate housing.”

County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said, “Somebody has to be sick. Somebody has to take one for the team for everybody to be able to move in.” DeCarmine countered that, “all of the guidance that we have seen shows that you could reasonably expect 75% reimbursement of the cost of moving vulnerable populations into non-congregate sheltering.” However, he warned that FEMA reimbursements can take years.  

Myers said he didn’t read the FEMA guidance that way. He said it required the county to provide documentation to establish the eligibility of costs for reimbursement, “including the need for non-congregate sheltering of each individual, costs, and length of stay, to include when they are no longer determined to be infected, and therefore do not require quarantine.” He said the doctor that had identified the medically-vulnerable individuals did not recommend that they be removed from GRACE but that they should be segregated away from the others. 

Claudia Tuck, Director of Community Support Services for Alachua County, said staff had had multiple conversations with the State, and the State doesn’t believe it would be reimbursable through FEMA. She said other communities have been using non-congregate shelter, and they were all using donated funds to pay for that. 

County Commissioner Ken Cornell moved that they direct staff to work with Mr. DeCarmine and bring back a plan to move the 24 people into permanent housing. Byerly and County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler seconded the motion.

Wheeler asked for more details about the 24 people on the list. Myers said they were “people who are aged 65 and above, with or without underlying medical conditions… folks with a history of stroke and blood clots… folks with asthma, adrenal insufficiency, COPD.” 

Wheeler said she would be in favor of a plan that moved people into hotel rooms and re-evaluated every 2 weeks to see if they could get them into permanent housing. She estimated that it would cost $19,000 every 2 weeks, split 50/50 between the County and the City. 

City Commissioner Harvey Ward said, “We know that permanent supportive housing is not going to happen tomorrow or next week or probably the week after that or probably the week after that. It takes a while to get this done.” But he said it would also be expensive if those people became sick, had to call 911, and went into the hospital.

Byerly argued that it’s not “heartless” to consider how much this will cost: “If we’re going to spend x amount of money on the problem, I want to make sure we’re spending it the best way we can. I’m not under any illusions that 24 people are gonna move into hotel rooms, and they’re only going to be there for a month. $40,000 a month is the estimate, unless someone wants to correct me with some counterargument; they’re not going to be there for a month. They’re going to be there for months and months… before you know it, we’re talking about the kind of money, before too long, certainly within a fiscal year, that we’re talking about allocating for permanent supportive housing for the entire year, and that remains our focus, I thought.

“So we do have to continue to think about the financing, and I think we all should probably remind ourselves: next year is going to be one horrendous budget year. All of our revenues are going to be way down. I think we all know that, and we’re going to have to prioritize and de-prioritize a lot of things in a way that we’re not thinking about right now. It’s not going to be business as usual.” 

Byerly asked for clarification of the motion, and Cornell responded that it was to expedite moving people into permanent supportive housing, not to move them into hotel rooms. Hutchinson said they should add to the motion that everyone on the list should be immediately moved into hotel rooms if one of them tested positive for COVID. Myers responded that “it is clear that if we have a confirmed case or exposure to a confirmed case, then non-congregate housing is clearly an option that I would sign off on. I have a hard time signing off on something that’s open-ended.”

Ward continued to argue for the hotel option: “I just thought I’d point out this is probably the least amount of money we’ve ever had an argument over. And it involves lives, too, but whatever.”

The motion to expedite moving the medically-vulnerable individuals into permanent housing passed the county commission unanimously.

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