Darren Reed was doing what he could to shelter in place under a freeway overpass in downtown Santa Rosa when contact tracers came looking for him.
A few days earlier, he had shared a Gatorade with a man who later tested positive for the coronavirus. So public health workers moved Reed and his partner, Jennifer Lazewski, out of a growing homeless encampment and into a nearby hotel room to quarantine.
Luckily, Reed didn’t test positive. The 41-year-old tattoo artist from Vallejo, like many unhoused people, has preexisting medical issues, leaving him vulnerable to severe COVID-19 complications.
At the time in May 2020, Reed was in bad shape after three years sleeping on sidewalks and collecting recyclables to earn money. Because of his condition, the couple were allowed to keep the room once their quarantine was over. They were then moved to another hotel to ride out the rest of the pandemic in safety.
“It was dire for me out there,” Reed said. “I don't think I'd have survived it for much longer.”
Reed and Lazewski are two of the hundreds of homeless residents in Sonoma County who have taken refuge at publicly funded hotel rooms, supervised outdoor camps and other socially distanced settings during the pandemic.
The goal has been to relocate at-risk people from crowded group shelters and encampments to sites where the virus is less likely to spread.
“It’s trying to keep people who are experiencing homelessness safe from COVID,” said Michael Gause, head of homelessness programs for Sonoma County.
Through the first 15 months of the pandemic, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, the two largest local governments, together spent an unprecedented $44 million on housing homeless people at pandemic shelter sites.
That emergency spending ballooned the region’s total expenditure on homelessness to a combined $92.4 million over fiscal 2019-20 and 2020-21 — a more than 550% increase in core homelessness costs compared to the two budget years prior to the pandemic, a monthslong Press Democrat examination of county and city records shows.
The newspaper compiled those records through requests starting in June. In the case of the county spending, it was spread so widely across different agencies that officials said the numbers did not encompass all county expenditures on homelessness.
The dramatic increase in local spending comes largely as a result of a surge in state and federal dollars funneled to cities and counties across California, where homelessness has either swelled or at least grown more visible amid the state’s intensifying housing crisis. The biggest batch of emergency dollars was tied to the programs aimed at getting homeless people into safe and stable housing during a deadly pandemic.
From March 2020 through June 2021, Sonoma County spent $33.7 million on pandemic shelter sites, according to county estimates. The expenditures included the purchase of two hotels, in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, and the lease of hundreds of rooms in three other lodging sites normally booked by tourists — moves that riled some neighbors concerned about the concentration of unhoused people in their community.
Meanwhile Santa Rosa, where about half of the county’s homeless population lives, spent $7.3 million on pandemic shelter sites, according to city data. The city spent another $3 million to expand its Samuel L. Jones Hall group shelter, the largest in the county.
Through various emergency initiatives, the state and federal government have covered, or are expected to cover, nearly all of those costs.
Local officials describe the shelter programs as a success. Of the around 1,100 individual placements at the sites, only a handful of residents tested positive for COVID-19, officials said.