THE RESIDENTS OF A NEW APARTMENT COMPLEX IN SALINAS HAVE BIG PLANS FOR THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD. A community garden and a barbecue area. Maybe a calendar with everyone’s birthdays so the neighbors can celebrate each person’s special day. “And right here we’ll put a Christmas tree,” Maria Morales says as she motions toward the middle of a large, outdoor common area.

Morales loves to cook so she proposes taking pre-orders for tamales she will make and sell as a fundraiser for the neighborhood monthly potlucks. On this August day the community is gathered around two folding tables full of food residents brought to the party, including cakes for those who recently celebrated their first birthdays since the complex opened in December.

A year ago, the two buildings of this complex weren’t apartments at all. They comprised the Good Nite Inn, a hotel on Work Street, just around the corner from where John Street connects to Highway 101. Today the inn is a home for 64 residents, created through a state program born out of the pandemic called Homekey to rapidly house vulnerable individuals. With $550 million in federal funds, $50 million in state funds and another $46 million coming from philanthropic sources, California now has 120 Homekey developments, creating 5,900 new housing units that are now home to 8,260 people who once had no home to call their own.

“A small miracle” is what Megan Hunter, community development director for the city of Salinas, calls the city’s first Homekey development. When fully renovated next year, it will house over 100 people in 101 studio apartments. The development went from concept to move-in-ready in a matter of five months, unheard of in the world of affordable housing. Normally building any type of low-income or permanent supportive housing – housing that includes case managers and supportive services – takes years.

It also takes lots of money, but Homekey has proved to dramatically lower the cost: the typical cost of constructing affordable housing can run between $500,000-$750,000 per unit. For Homekey it can run below $200,000 per unit to convert former hotels and motels. Salinas’ Homekey project was purchased and built at a cost of approximately $168,000 per unit.

The impact of such rapid housing is huge, not only for the newly housed residents, but for the region. When fully occupied, Salinas’ Homekey building will reduce the city’s federally recognized homeless population number by 5 percent, says Roxanne Wilson, executive director of the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers.

Wilson and others at the local and state level are already calling the young program a success. It’s not just providing permanent homes for formerly homeless individuals, it’s giving them tangible ways to regain their footing after years of uncertainty and turmoil. With a secure roof over their heads and daily needs met, they are getting healthier, stronger and are able to make plans for the future.

“You wouldn’t even recognize them from back then to today,” says Hunter of Homekey’s residents. “You can physically see people’s improvement. It’s not superficial like taking a bath. They’re putting on weight, they’re smiling more. It’s just been a really positive shift.”

Virginia and Raymond Cardenes are safe in their Homekey apartment, after losing a place to live when Virginia’s grandmother died last year. They jumped into their new community, serving on a residents’ committee and helping with a weekly writing class that Raymond co-leads. DANIEL DREIFUSS

WHEN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CAME TO MONTEREY COUNTY, MOST PEOPLE SHELTERED AT HOME. But for those who could not, there was a serious worry about unhoused people potentially contracting the virus and dying on the streets. At the time, Anastacia Wyatt was the housing program manager for the county. She was present when the county’s Emergency Operations Center was activated and plans coalesced for protecting the public. Finding temporary shelter for one of the most vulnerable populations was paramount.

At the state level, officials set to work on a plan to house homeless individuals in empty hotels and motels. As early as March 24, 2020, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors was told that a state negotiator was expected to arrive imminently in the county to negotiate with local lodging owners. Six had already expressed interest, as their guest counts plummeted amid travel restrictions. At the time, county officials estimated there were at least 2,000 unhoused people who would need shelter during the pandemic.

Within about six weeks, 55 people had been housed in lodging properties by either county officials (15 people) or the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers (40 people). It was done through the state’s nascent program called Project Roomkey, announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 3, 2020. California became the first state in the nation to secure FEMA funding for the program, with an initial goal of securing 15,000 rooms statewide to house homeless individuals, combined with wraparound services.

Since March 2020, Project Roomkey has housed 233 people in Monterey County in over 70 rooms. Statewide it has brought over 42,000 people into temporary shelter. It’s still in operation on a smaller scale, but was never meant to be a long-term program. Negotiated leases with lodging owners were going to expire, and the pandemic wasn’t over yet. At the same time, there were a large number of vacant or nearly vacant hotels and motels across the state that were available for sale.

Seeing a unique opportunity to buy and rehabilitate properties in a cost-effective way, state officials decided to scale up Roomkey, according to Sasha Hauswald, an assistant deputy director with the California Housing and Community Development Department.

In July 2020, four months into the pandemic, the state announced the application period for Homekey was open. It came with a rapid-fire timeline: Interested jurisdictions had until Aug. 13 to apply for funds to acquire hotels. If awarded the money, they had until Dec. 31 to close escrow and move people into at least 50 percent of the units. There was no time to waste.

MARK TWAIN HAD HIS OWN SPIN ON THE OLD PHRASE “NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION.” Twain’s take: “Necessity is the mother of taking chances.” If protecting people during a pandemic was the necessity that invented Project Roomkey, the opportunity to turn vacant hotels and motels into permanent supportive housing was the mother of taking chances. For Salinas, it was taking a chance on an unproven program.

“It’s such an unusual opportunity to get this housing and money in one big sum and the idea of converting a hotel into housing overnight was unprecedented in our community. No one had ever done it before,” says Wyatt, now housing manager for Pacific Grove.

In July of last year, Wyatt, working for the county, called Hunter with the city of Salinas and said, “‘We’ve got to talk and get this going.” They were excited about “this,” Homekey. As Wyatt looks back now she recalls joking, “Let’s get crazy and buy a hotel!”

It was serendipitous that Wyatt was working for the county with a focus on housing and solutions around homelessness. Several years earlier she heard about a program in Los Angeles called Step Up, which was working with a construction company to transform lodging properties into permanent supportive housing for people who had previously been homeless. She visited the program while on vacation in Southern California and was impressed.

When Homekey was announced, Wyatt had already been looking at hotels and motels for sale in the county and had a good idea of the local market. It didn’t take long to focus on the Good Nite Inn in Salinas as a strong possibility for Homekey. It was the least expensive hotel listed, at around $16 million, and it was relatively new, having been built in the 1990s. It was in good shape and there was no need for expensive lead paint or asbestos removal.

Wyatt connected Hunter to Step Up and its construction partner, Shangri-La Construction. Hunter began filling out the state’s Homekey application, even though discussions and negotiations were ongoing and she had yet to secure official approval from the Salinas City Council. They only had three weeks to submit the application. “They could have stopped me and said, ‘Wait a minute, this is too big of a risk,’” she says. “Salinas is lucky because we have leadership that is more visionary than other places I’ve worked.”

Stumbling blocks to transforming a hotel into housing include the potential loss of transient occupancy tax revenue (TOT) for the city, although Hunter says the trade-off between an under-performing hotel with empty beds most nights is not difficult. “I know the city is looking at these long-term solutions because we are spending so much on police, fire, public works, and garbage,” she says, adding there are even more costs to the county in health care and incarceration of those who run afoul of the law. “It’s not a smart way of using money.”

The Salinas City Council did talk about the loss of TOT briefly, but in the end they took the chance that the city would save in the long term, Hunter says. “And of course,” she adds, “housing people is the humane and right thing to do.”

Regina Label in her Homekey apartment, decorated with treasures she finds at the Goodwill outlet in Salinas. She made her way to Homekey through I-HELP (Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program) on the Monterey Peninsula. She says she uses what she learns from her own homeless experience to help others find their way through the system and into homes; she also teaches a class that helps neighbors create wellness recovery action plans. DANIEL DREIFUSS

THERE WAS MORE TO GETTING HOMEKEY LAUNCHED IN SALINAS THAN MONEY – it took nearly the entire village of homeless organizations and advocates to rally together. “We had to pull in all the partners we possibly could,” says Wilson of the Coalition. It’s home to the Leadership Council, a group of representatives from the county and cities that vote on how to spend state grants around homelessness.

The Leadership Council agreed to use $1 million in funds from a state Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention grant toward Homekey. The Monterey County Board of Supervisors also agreed to use CARES Act funding for operations in coming years. The Housing Authority of the County of Monterey committed to providing housing vouchers for the future residents. First it had to get permission from 11 service providers to set aside vouchers already committed to them. “When you think about all the partners that had to come together to make Homekey happen, this was really extraordinary,” Wilson says.

All the efforts to bring Homekey to Salinas paid off. On Oct. 9, 2020, the state approved the application and awarded $7 million toward the Good Nite Inn purchase price of $12 million. In the end, the city agreed that Shangri-La would complete the purchase using $5 million of the company’s own money. Shangri-La owns the building, with an agreement to keep it as affordable housing for the next 10 years.

Salinas officials entered into an agreement with Step Up to provide supportive services to the residents. To pay for the first two years of services, the project received a $2.2 million grant from Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit focused on affordable housing. With 85 project-based vouchers, most of the residents will pay nothing out of pocket; some will pay a portion of their income.

Escrow closed in early December and the village got busy. Volunteers from CSU Monterey Bay’s Center for Health Engagement helped set up the rooms. The Veterans Transition Center sent people to move residents from Roomkey into Homekey. Within 10 days, over 50 residents had signed leases and settled in.

“I have never in my life seen anything so incredible and collaborative,” Wilson says.

“HAVE YOU GUYS EVER BEEN HOMELESS?” Morales asks visitors as she leads the way to her apartment. “It humbles you but it makes you a better human being.”

Inside Morales’ apartment there’s enough food to feed the entire complex. There’s a small refrigerator and freezer, both packed to the brim. A long table along one wall acts as her countertop, with packages of food stacked underneath. On top of the table is a cook plate and a toaster oven. She tells the other neighbors to drop by anytime if they’re hungry and help themselves. “I’m always cooking,” she says.

This is Morales’ temporary digs. Eventually she will move into one of the units being renovated. When the Homekey application was announced, the state required that 50 percent of the buildings be occupied by Dec. 31, which meant moving residents in before every unit could be refurbished and outfitted with a kitchenette. When Morales does move, she’ll have a counter with a small cooktop plus a sink in a room that includes new paint, flooring and a new bathroom.

Hanging on the wall on the opposite side of her studio are family photos of her two adult daughters, ages 30 and 32, her mother, and her young grandson. On the dresser below are baskets full of different colored balls of yarn she uses to knit with. A Bible lays open to the Book of Daniel, Chapter 6: Daniel’s safe delivery out of the lion’s den.

Morales’ safe delivery to Homekey comes after a multi-year odyssey. She tells the story that after a boyfriend stole a large sum of money from her in Las Vegas, she eventually became homeless for three years, living on the streets of Chinatown in Salinas. Under Project Roomkey, Morales, who has diabetes, spent six months safely at the Country Inn Motel not far from the Homekey complex.

Many Roomkey clients like Morales were prioritized for Homekey, and the county gave permission to Salinas to use Project Roomkey funds to help open the new apartments, according to Wilson. All of the Homekey residents are considered in need of permanent supportive services on a long-term basis, possibly for life. They may have mental health issues, or substance abuse issues, or both. (Morales is quick to tell visitors she does not have a drug problem.)

Hunter, Wilson and others credit the success of Homekey with the smooth transition from Roomkey over to the new program. Since many of Roomkey’s clients had been chronically homeless, they had several months to transition to living inside with services made available to them. Homekey builds on that and continues to help residents not just survive but thrive as self-sufficient individuals. “If this can be the foundation and catalyst for that kind of growth, we’re happy,” says Julius Mills-Denti, Salinas program manager for Step Up.

A bulletin board keeps the community members in the know about community resources, mail delivery, potlucks and the weekly schedule of classes led by residents and staff. It’s also where residents will find inspirational words of the week. DANIEL DREIFUSS

VIRGINIA AND RAYMOND CARDENES WERE NEWLY HOMELESS WHEN THEY WERE ACCEPTED INTO HOMEKEY IN DECEMBER. They were previously living with Virginia’s grandmother in Carmel Valley, with Virginia serving as her primary caregiver. When the grandmother passed away last fall, they had to leave the home with nowhere to go. It wasn’t the only death they were grieving: Raymond’s grandfather passed away last year after suffering from Valley Fever and meningitis followed by Covid-19.

The couple was accepted into Project Roomkey within two weeks, and were among the first residents to move into Homekey, along with Raymond’s emotional support cat, a gray tabby named Cali. (Pets are accepted at the Salinas Homekey site.)

They meet the criteria of need that the Coalition follows as outlined by state standards for placing people within homeless services and housing. Using a vulnerability index, each potential resident is assessed for a variety of factors including chronic homelessness and documentation of significant mental health issues, says Mills-Denti. (They must also earn below 30 percent of the county’s median income, or $21,350 annually for a single person.)

All of the Homekey residents meet the criteria of being at risk for chronic homelessness. Many will need permanent supportive services for the rest of their lives and it’s possible that some will live out their lives at the Salinas Homekey site, as has happened at other Step Up housing developments around the country. (As long as residents follow the rules of the lease they may remain; Step Up will work with them exhausting every possible option to help, only turning to eviction as a last resort.)

Although they could stay, Raymond and Virginia are looking beyond their studio apartment to one day find a permanent home elsewhere and start a family. They grew up in Salinas and love the city, but want someplace more rural, more quiet, where Raymond can find some peace. In the city, Raymond says, “my paranoia starts to tap at me.” The paranoia leads to self-doubts, which in turn lead to temptations to go astray.

“Being here, it’s been a blessing,” Virginia says. Her husband’s sobriety was on the line, and she’s certain he would have stumbled if it hadn’t been for the support through Homekey. Instead, he was able to get medical help and has been doing well. The two are active in the new community, serving on a residents’ committee that resolves issues that may bubble up. Raymond offered to start a writing class with a staff co-leader that now meets a couple of times a week. Raymond and Virginia bought notebooks and pens with their own money to give to the class.

“Our neighbors are our saving grace,” says Virginia. They all help each other, sharing food or giving rides to those without transportation. “They’re like family now.”

EVERY HOMELESS ADVOCATE KNOWS FROM PAST EXPERIENCE THAT IT TAKES MORE THAN PUTTING A ROOF OVER THE HEAD OF SOMEONE who has been chronically homeless to be successful. Oftentimes people get used to living without a permanent home, making living inside a challenge. Add to it the reasons they wound up homeless – struggles with mental health, substance abuse or both – that, if untreated, will eventually cause them to lose stable housing yet again. It’s why permanent supportive housing has become the gold standard.

Step Up, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit founded in 1984 to provide mental health services, figured this out nearly three decades ago when it became evident that clients had few options for affordable housing. After building one housing development in 1994, the group kept going. Today it has 15 permanent supportive housing projects with over 650 units in three states, says Aaron Criswell, chief housing development officer. It’s on track to open seven more projects in California in the coming year.

The group follows a “housing first” model which seeks to get people into housing first, then get them stabilized, as opposed to the older path of stabilizing first, then shelters, then permanent housing. With housing first, clients are accepted as they are into shelters and put into permanent supportive housing as soon as possible. “Our job is to get them through the paperwork and into permanent housing and then look at the mental health issues, then the larger issues of school, job training and employment,” Criswell says, adding that the organization boasts a 97-percent success rate in keeping people housed.

The housing first method is followed by the new SHARE shelter in Salinas operated by Bay Area Community Services, and by the Monterey Peninsula’s first shelter for women and families, Casa de Noche Buena in Seaside. If there were any doubts about housing first as a model, advocates say Roomkey, and now Homekey, are proving its effectiveness.

As effective as it is, supportive housing like the kind Step Up provides is not an easy path to take. “We take the hard way – hard in the sense that it takes longer and is more work, more effort,” Criswell says.

Case managers are trained to teach residents how to do things for themselves to be resilient in the long haul, even if it means a task like calling the Social Security office takes much longer than if the manager did it for the resident. “We could probably do that in a five-minute call,” Criswell says. But instead managers coach the residents in practice runs so they can do the call themselves.

The overarching goal of Step Up staff is to build trust that outlasts the move-in. “It’s all about the relationships,” Criswell says. “Once you give them a key and they sign a lease they don’t have to open the door to us again.” Some residents won’t, “but it’s all about continuing to try, and that’s what changes their minds.”

As the program manager, Mills-Denti is all about continuing to try with Salinas’ Homekey residents. His background includes working in residential treatment programs. “I became interested in people that didn’t want to talk to me,” he says. He learned to “roll with the resistance instead of trying to fix it.”

Along with a staff of five, Mills-Denti engages residents on a daily basis – walking through the hallways, helping them when they come to the lobby, or at gatherings like a weekly roundtable discussion or the monthly potlucks. Some of the residents, he says, need help with managing concrete life skills, others might need support that is more conversational in nature, helping them problem solve day-to-day social situations. It’s that building of trust, interacting with residents in conversations and activities that “is the elixir for a lot of issues,” Mills-Denti says.

THERE IS STILL MORE TO BE DONE AT THE SALINAS HOMEKEY SITE. The pool that currently sits empty behind a locked gate will be filled in to create more greenspace and room for raised garden beds. The outside of the building will get new paint. Inside all the units will be repainted, given new floors and new bathrooms and kitchenettes. “Our goal is to make it look like an apartment building, and move it away from looking like a motel,” Criswell says.

Before the paint is dry in Salinas, Step Up is already looking toward expansion by hundreds and possibly even thousands of units under what advocates refer to as “Homekey 2.0,” funded by $2.75 billion approved in the 2021-22 state budget to be spent over the next two years.

While Step Up will find more hotels and motels to convert, Homekey is not limited to lodging units only. It also includes converting other types of buildings or even purchasing existing homes. Salinas is open to creating more Homekey units in whatever configuration will work, Hunter says, and while it’s talking with Step Up about other possible lodging conversions, the city is open to working with other organizations with creative housing solutions too. Family housing is a particular need in Salinas, Hunter says, so officials may focus on using Homekey funds for two – to three-bedroom units on land near the SHARE Center.

Salinas remains one of the more likely locations for more Homekey units, although King City officials are considering applying as well. Wyatt, who now works in Pacific Grove, says it may be difficult for Monterey Peninsula cities to utilize Homekey, given water restrictions due to the state’s cease-and-desist order to stop overpumping the Carmel River.

Political will is another question. Salinas had the will, but whether that same will exists on the Peninsula is yet to be seen. Another plus for Salinas’ Homekey project, Wyatt says, was that surrounding businesses were open to it. Other neighborhoods might not be as accepting.

On Sept. 9, the state announced the next round of Homekey funding: $1.45 billion. Awards will be between $150,000-$200,000 per “door,” or unit, with a required capital match of up to $100,000 per unit. The state will also award between $1,000-$1,400 a month for operating costs.

Successful applicants will have eight months to expend a large portion of their award on capital construction. The smaller portion intended for operating supportive services must be spent by June 30, 2026. Applications will be accepted through next May, or until funds run out. The state is encouraging applicants to apply as soon as possible.

With the first Homekey project reducing Salinas’ homeless population by 5 percent, Wilson believes the community of advocates, government staff, elected officials and others have the collective ability to do more and reach a larger, more audacious goal. “We have never had a project with such an impact,” Wilson says. “We will continue to pursue projects like Homekey so we can reduce homelessness in Monterey County by 50 percent.”

Hunter is optimistic about Salinas’ chances in this or future rounds, as well as that of other municipalities in the county that choose to pursue Homekey. “The key to moving these projects forward is the willingness to take the risk.”