By John Ramos

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, California officials knew immediately if it spread into the homeless population a disaster could occur, so the state leased hotels to house people living on the streets. Now, months into the pandemic, many of the rooms sit empty.

The state identified, and Alameda County leased, the Comfort Inn and Radisson Hotel near the Oakland Coliseum as places for homeless people to recover or seek refuge from the virus.

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“It was a win-win when it came up because they were empty. We don’t have tourists anymore,” said James Vann, co-founder of Oakland’s Homeless Advocacy Working Group.

But what sounded like a great way to get the homeless off the streets hasn’t exactly panned out.

“A substantial number of the hotel rooms are still vacant, have never been filled,” Vann said. “And many homeless people haven’t been accepted through the process they set up.”

To keep rooms available in case of an infection surge, only individuals that test positive, are symptomatic, have been directly exposed to the virus, or are in highly vulnerable health are eligible to live there.

One problem for the county is funding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pick up 75 percent of the tab for a hotel room, but only if the individual meets the current criteria for eligibility.

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Statewide, only one-third of the available rooms are filled. A lot of homeless people are still living in tents and some are worried about contracting coronavirus.

“Yes, they are…they are worried,” said Pastor Preston Walker.

In a cluster of tents in a small park near Lake Merritt, Walker lives a life he’s comfortable with admits many of his neighbors aren’t. He says many who might like a hotel room are too young to qualify as “at risk.” Others who are older feel like he does. He feels living in hotel rooms, next to other people, actually poses a greater risk than living outside.

“Sheet rock still talks,” he said. “Whatever was embedded in that sheet rock is still there in that sheet rock,” said Walker.

He believes he’s actually safer in his tent than in one of the homeless hotels. “Yes, because I got ventilation in the tent!”

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But homeless advocates say, with 80 percent of the state’s hotel rooms currently vacant, officials shouldn’t be waiting for people to get sick when they could be preventing it from happening in the first place.