Project Roomkey aims to keep homeless safe, but community concerned over recent deaths

Wendy Leung
Ventura County Star
Vagabond Inn in Oxnard is one of four area motels that were leased by the County of Ventura to house the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Project Roomkey, which houses the elderly and medically frail homeless, aims to keep this population safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, four hotel sites across Ventura County house about 200 people who would otherwise be on the streets or at higher-risk congregant shelters.

But recent Project Roomkey deaths have caused some in the community to doubt whether the intentions of the program have been kept.

Since the program began last March, nine people have died across the sites, with three deaths at the Oxnard Vagabond Inn. Of those nine, one of the deaths was due to COVID-19.

Peggy Larios, 67, a retired drug and alcohol counselor, was suffering from COVID-19 when she died while staying at the Oxnard Vagabond, according to her daughter Regina Larios. Peggy Larios had been living in her RV since her house burned down four years ago.

"It's a huge loss for everybody, not just me and my family, but everybody she touched," said Regina Larios. "She left a huge hole."

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Regina Larios said her mother was among the founding members of the pro-Chicano group Brown Berets, Oxnard chapter. She said she's not completely opposed to Project Roomkey but she thinks if her mother had more medical attention, she would not have died.

"I'm not against the whole thing. I'm against who they're helping," Regina Larios said. "They're not scrutinizing who's coming. They're on the street and then they come back to the hotel. There needs to be some sort of requirement to be there."

Low barrier is the term used to describe Project Roomkey, which doesn't place harsh restrictions on the participants of the program. The program, run by the county with the help of nonprofit service providers, is aimed at homeless individuals who are elderly or who have health conditions and would therefore be at high risk of complications if infected with COVID-19.

"We're serving people who are medically frail. Some are on hospice," said Tara Carruth, program manager for the Ventura County Continuum of Care.

In addition to the Vagabond in Oxnard, the Vagabond Inn and Best Western in Ventura and the Premiere Inn in Newbury Park are also used to house the homeless. They are not locked facilities and participants of the program come and go for essential services just like everyone else, pointed out Carruth, whose team manages eligibility for the program.

The Vagabond Inn in Oxnard has since been purchased with $11.15 million in state funds under Project Homekey to transition into permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals. 

Oxnard is considering leveraging state funding to turn Vagabond Inn into housing for the county's homeless residents.

Related coverage:Vagabond Inn in Oxnard officially purchased for homeless housing under Project Homekey

'I feel we've done a good job'

Since the pandemic arrived last March, the Project Roomkey has housed 500 people, many with chronic health and drug dependency issues. According to Carruth, a total of 60 people have been infected with COVID-19. When there are confirmed cases, county public health officials arrive to perform coronavirus testing. Currently case managers are helping the elderly get the vaccine.

"I feel we've done a good job," Carruth said.

The first of the nine deaths occurred last July, Carruth said. Not all of them took place at the site; some were living at the Project Roomkey sites and died at a hospital. Although some in the Oxnard community have said there have been seven deaths in Oxnard, the actual figure is three, according to Carruth.

Peggy Rivera, who chairs the Oxnard Homeless Commission, said it's hard to hear of one death, let alone multiple deaths.

"We take them off the street to give them safe harbor," she said. "To put them in a safe harbor location and having them die ... no matter how they die, this is very unacceptable. I think we just need to find a way to do better."

Rivera said there should be a more structured program.

"You can't just put this population together and expect them by themselves to do good. Some abuse drugs. Some have different issues," Rivera said.

Stephen Crane, 59, was one such person who died at the Oxnard Vagabond from drug abuse. Crane had been battling with drug and alcohol addiction for some time, said his son, Kevin Crane.

Instead of spending government resources to place people like his father into motels, Kevin Crane said they should be offering drug rehabilitation.

"This is enabling them to be dangerous to themselves," Crane said.

An effort 'to bring as many people as possible indoors'

During a January City Council meeting, Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen pointed out that 30 homeless people died in Oxnard last year. Those who died at the Vagabond would have died somewhere outdoors, he said.

"Our effort with the Vagabond is to bring as many people as possible indoors especially during this pandemic to try to prevent outbreaks in homeless encampments. And we do it with extremely low barriers simply because we want to get people indoors to a more humane situation, where it’s possible to attempt to provide services."       

Carruth said the county wants to be more proactive with the program and has had its healthcare team do more check-ins.

"We've been a lot more thoughtful with the screening and in understanding what people's needs are before coming in," Carruth said.   

Medical teams will also ensure that participants have their medication and will help those who are struggling with connecting to telemedicine, Carruth said. 

"We're trying to make sure we were doing our due diligence as best we could to meet the needs of residents of Project Roomkey," she said.

Wendy Leung is a staff writer for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at wendy.leung@vcstar.com or 805-437-0339. You can also find her on Twitter @Leung__Wendy.