On Thursday, January 21st, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse state and local governments for 100% of the cost to open and operate non-congregate homeless shelters, along with other measures to slow COVID-19. Under the Trump Administration, cities were being reimbursed just 75% of the cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has made traditional congregate shelters dangerous, as they pack together homeless people into one space, increasing the likelihood of transmitting COVID-19. Although questions still remain, city officials hope this expansion of federal aid will allow them to significantly expand housing options for homeless residents in Sacramento. 

Other cities across California are already beginning to take advantage of the expanded aid. Days after the executive order was signed, the Los Angeles Times published an article regarding how LA plans to use the funds. There, one city councilmember is hoping to rent tens of thousands of hotel rooms to house the homeless population until September 2021, when the aid runs out. 

There were questions among officials, however, about when the new rules would begin to apply, and whether FEMA would pay the cost of renting rooms up-front. The executive order offered little guidance on the issue, despite mentioning it as an option. A memorandum signed by Biden on the 2nd of February addressed some of those questions, but created more in the process. 

The memorandum clarified that the new aid rules entered into effect January 21st, when Biden signed the original order, and clarified that the 100% reimbursement policy would extend retroactively to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. It was unclear, however, whether non-congregate shelters would be covered retroactively. 

This discrepancy seems to have been resolved, however. A spokesperson for FEMA responded to Access Local’s request for clarification by saying, “Last week, we received additional direction from the President that will allow FEMA to pay 100% federal funding for the costs of activities that have previously been determined eligible from the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 to September 30, 2021… including increasing medical capacity, non-congregate sheltering, and emergency feeding distribution will be reimbursed at 100%.”

Sacramento leaders hope to take advantage of this increase in aid to open and expand more homeless shelters. Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, who represents the 4th district and has been very vocal in support of expanding homeless shelters, hopes to greatly expand the city’s hotel voucher program. 

“We are… moving very quickly to take advantage of this opportunity… Once guidance was released a week or so ago, we partnered with City staff to pursue every lead on hotels that may be eligible for scaling up Project Room Key so we can move people indoors for as long as possible. We are on track to bring hundreds of additional rooms online in the next couple of weeks,” she said. 

According to Valenzuela, “By moving folks indoors, potentially for months, we can better redirect our resources to interventions like case management and supportive housing units to keep people off of the street long-term. And we’ll be keeping folks safe, almost immediately, which is a huge priority for us – particularly after the storm a couple of weeks ago.”

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is now facing a recall effort from the Sacramento Homeless Union over the city’s failure to open warming centers during the storm two weeks ago, has been vocal in supporting efforts to get homeless off the streets. His office did not respond for comment by time of publication.