Odom is one of more than 2,000 D.C. residents who have spent weeks or sometimes months in hotel rooms paid for by the D.C. government, an effort that has greatly reduced the spread of coronavirus among homeless residents.
But the city has left many of the hotel rooms it rents vacant — up to 70 percent on some nights — even as it failed to recruit members of another vulnerable population: those living in crowded conditions who could easily spread the virus to their families or roommates.
While the virus has raged in Columbia Heights, Brightwood and other dense, heavily Latino D.C. neighborhoods — where many residents live in multi-person households and are unable to telework — fewer than five percent of the rented hotel rooms have gone to Latinos. At least 73 percent of the people in the rooms for isolation and quarantine have been homeless.
The city spends $2 million per month to rent hundreds of hotel rooms; on no night, city data shows, have all the rooms been filled.
“Frankly, I didn’t know that was an option for people who had homes. It’s not being advertised in Spanish, and we have people who are ‘isolating’ where four people are in one bedroom,” said Stephanie Bastek, an organizer with the D.C. Tenants Union.
The D.C. Health Department said that the city’s contact tracers are able to conduct a “home assessment” to make sure people who have tested positive for the virus have a place that they can isolate from others, and a spokeswoman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said that all D.C. residents who test positive get a letter telling them to call the city if they need a safe place to isolate.
Director of Public Works Christopher Geldart said that some of the rented hotel rooms are empty by design. “We wanted to make sure that we were never without a place for somebody to go. We never wanted to hit that full capacity and have to worry about finding another hotel,” he said.
At the same time, he said he hoped news coverage of the hotel program would help spread the word that residents in crowded housing have access to the option of a free hotel room if they need it. “The rooms are not just for those experiencing homelessness. They’re for anybody in the city that needs a room.”
For the homeless, the hotel program is largely a success: While some cities have struggled with major outbreaks in their homeless shelters, and D.C. initially saw almost 300 cases in those facilities, the numbers have stayed low since May. When the city conducted more than 1,000 coronavirus tests in the shelters in recent months, they found just nine positive cases.
Finding hotel rooms was relatively easy, since many were largely vacant as the pandemic obliterated vacations and business travel. D.C. designated separate hotels for two purposes: First, providing people — homeless or not — who have the virus or have been exposed to it a place to isolate or quarantine. And second, providing older homeless residents who are especially vulnerable to the disease with a protective place to stay so that they won’t catch it.
A nurse from the nonprofit Unity Health Care or a temp agency checks daily on every patient housed in an isolation hotel. D.C. Department of Human Services staff, many of whom worked in office jobs before the pandemic, have pitched in to staff hotel operations, like delivering meals to each occupant’s room.
Jean-Baptiste Odounga has stayed in both types of hotels. He was strictly quarantined after he learned he had stayed in a shelter dorm with a man who had the virus. He spent most of his time reading the Bible. “It was hard. You have to count hours, you know,” he said. “You wake up in the morning. You take a shower. And then you cannot read every minute. It’s not possible.”
Odounga, who became homeless seven years ago after hernias, back surgery and eye surgery left him unable to continue working for the United Parcel Service, did not develop symptoms and went back to the shelter. There, a doctor recommended that he go into the other type of hotel, one aimed at protecting people from getting the virus, since he is 63 and diabetic.
He left that hotel when what he had been waiting on for years finally came through: a voucher for an apartment of his own. He is one of 15 people so far to secure permanent housing while waiting in the hotels.
Not everyone is willing to stay at the hotels. Catherine Crosland, the Unity Health Care doctor serving as medical director for the hotels, said some people who had formerly been incarcerated refused the offer of a protective room, saying that a closely supervised situation with restrictions on their freedom felt too much like imprisonment.
Others dealing with substance abuse gave up on the hotel after some time inside, said Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit which worked early in the pandemic to help some clients move from a city-sponsored hotel room to permanent housing.
The hotel started selling alcohol to guests who would suffer from withdrawal without it, Respress said. But opioid users didn’t have an option to buy inside, and some left.
The city has paid for the rooms out of its own funds but hopes to recoup the cost through FEMA grants eventually, the Department of Human Services (DHS) said.
At peak, D.C. was renting more than 500 rooms for isolation and quarantine, but using just over 350 of them. As of the end of July, city data showed D.C. was renting 200 rooms for people exposed to the virus or sick with it, and less than half were occupied. (Nearly 300 additional people were staying in the preventative rooms.)
DHS said it has promoted the hotel option at news conferences and on the city’s website. But organizers who work with Latino communities pointed out that marginalized residents, especially non-English speakers, would rarely come across those announcements.
Some cited Miami-Dade County as an example of how such a program should be run: Officials there set up and promoted a dedicated hotline, available in three languages, that people can call to get a room so that they won’t infect family members. The county also pledged not to ask occupants about their immigration status.
Sindy Benavides, chief executive of the national Latino civil rights organization LULAC, said that even in cities where Spanish-speaking residents are made aware of a hotel option, many fear to use it. “There’s a high level of fear in the community of accessing anything that has to do with the government,” she said. “You have to make sure the community is assured that ICE is not going to show up at the hotel and knock on their door while they’re trying to self-quarantine and survive this pandemic.”
She also pointed out that many who live in crowded conditions cannot reasonably leave their homes, for child care or other reasons.
Benavides cited Ohio, where hundreds of hotels volunteered to serve as shelters, and Houston, where the city rented out hotels not just for homeless people but for first responders who needed to quarantine, but said no city has made much headway in using hotels as a large-scale response to the crisis in Latino neighborhoods.
Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, said cities should be looking now at how they can expand on their use of hotels, as the pandemic continues and emergency federal protections against eviction are ending. “This is a crucial moral moment, where we have to do everything we can to value every individual and save every life we can,” she said.
Crosland defended the city’s focus on the homeless for its hotel program, saying that the risk of living with dozens of others in a shelter dormitory is even greater than that of living with multiple housemates. Being inside the hotel, with access to regular meals, their own bathroom, and a private place to sleep has actually improved health for some homeless people during the pandemic, she said.
And Crosland argues that preventing outbreaks at shelters provides broad public benefits — reducing the burden on hospitals, ambulances and more. “It’s a public health victory that, early on, we were able to pull some of the oldest and most medically vulnerable folks out of the shelters and into these hotels,” she said. “Decreasing the risk of infection benefits not only individuals, but the entire community.”