SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — County staff missed a deadline set by the Board of Supervisors to produce an independent review of the troubled COVID-19 hotel sheltering program.
The board ordered the review in early March, eight days after an inewsource investigation uncovered poor care and oversight issues at the main isolation hotel, the Crowne Plaza in Mission Valley.
San Diego County has been using the Crowne Plaza and other hotels since March 2020 for people who have nowhere else to isolate from the coronavirus. But the program has been plagued with problems from the start.
Guests and employees said the county’s contractor, Equus Workforce Solutions, is mismanaging the program, and that staff aren’t prepared to work with most of those who are isolating — people who are homeless and might be struggling with mental illness or substance-use disorders.
The county has a $30 million contract with Equus, a staffing agency, to provide services to people in these hotels. That doesn’t include what the county has been paying to house people at these hotels.
And now a June 1 deadline for oversight has been pushed back at least a month with no clear end in sight. Meanwhile, calls to San Diego police about problems at each hotel continue to flood in.
Shera Beem, who has been staying at one of the hotels managed by Equus since late February, said something needs to change.
“Imagine the worst nursing home you could possibly imagine your grandma being in or something. That’s what this is like. It’s like the worst place ever,” Beem said, adding that staff doesn’t show people any decency or respect.
A representative with Equus did not respond to an interview request.
The Board of Supervisors wanted the review to include lessons learned and how to apply best practices when providing services to unsheltered people in the future. Staff was supposed to report back within 90 days, or by May 31.
But it took over a month to work out a $140,000 contract with San Diego State University’s School of Public Health to define the scope of the review.
The contract calls for a review of the entire hotel sheltering program, including arrival and departure practices, physical and mental health assessments, coordination of services, safety checks, and emergency procedures. The analysis will include identifying barriers to access the program, safety issues and any other concerns that might arise. The contract set a June 1 deadline to produce a final report.
Five days before that deadline, Health and Human Services Agency Director Nick Macchione sent a memo to the county supervisors.
“SDSU has conducted several activities to inform this effort; however, feedback from their staff working on the project indicates additional time is needed to produce a more complete report,” the memo says.
County staff pushed the deadline to July without specifying a date. A county spokesperson declined to answer questions through email about when the board or members of the public can expect to see the results of the report.
At a COVID-19 news conference on Tuesday, board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said given the seriousness of the issue, he would rather the report be accurate than rushed.
“We wanted a full accounting of this program and this effort to better understand and know exactly what happened here, and to guide our efforts as we move forward into the future and consider similar endeavors,” Fletcher said, adding that it’s important to get it done.
“I also think it is important enough that if they need a little bit extra time in order to complete it, we would rather wait a few weeks to get a complete and accurate report than rush something that might be inaccurate and incomplete.”
When the pandemic began last year, San Diego County implemented the program for two reasons: to isolate people who test positive or come in contact with the virus and to protect people who are at-risk for developing severe illness.
But county staff quickly became overwhelmed. In an email inewsource obtained last spring, one employee told colleagues she was “pushing and begging and pleading for additional staff” to help provide adequate support.
Within a week, county officials changed an existing $13 million contract it had with Telecare Corp., which had been providing mental health services to San Diegans in the legal system, to also help people in isolation. Even so, a man died by suicide at the Crowne Plaza not long after that email. The death wasn’t discovered for five days.
Two months after inewsource uncovered these problems and the suicide death, county officials hired Equus to take over the hotel sheltering program.
But the problems have continued under Equus’ management. One employee, Turquoise Teagle, said the county isn’t paying enough attention, relying only on daily video calls with staff.
San Diego police records show that officers have responded to about 600 calls for service at county-run hotels over the past 18 months — nearly double the number of calls seen in the prior two years. About 1 in 10 of the calls were related to mental health, including suicide attempts and threats.
Naomi Flynn spent about five months isolated at the Fairfield Inn in Old Town, one of the county-run hotels. She said most of the problems stem from Equus employees.
“Their staff is not qualified to deal with people with PTSD or anything like that,” she said, adding that she has PTSD from being assaulted while living on the streets. “They’re more qualified to deal with children because that’s how they treated all of us.”
Flynn said she has congestive heart failure and takes medication that requires her to stay out of the sun. But last month, Equus staff handed Flynn a “notice to vacate” from one of the county-run hotels with four hours’ notice. She said it came two days after an altercation that involved multiple people, but she said she was the only one who was forced to leave.
Since then, she and her 8-year-old Shar-Pei pitbull terrier named Trouble have been living in her 2002 Ford Expedition. Both of them feel much more relaxed since leaving the program, she said.
But when asked if she would return to a county-run hotel if given the opportunity, she said, “As long as I didn’t have to deal with the people from Equus. I would jump on it because my health is in bad shape.”
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