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Project Roomkey Helped Vulnerable, Homeless Californians at COVID’s Peak — and Continues To Serve As an Effective Emergency Housing Model

  • An independent evaluation of the program by Abt Global finds Project Roomkey achieved its initial goals — providing emergency housing and services in hotels and motels to 62,000 medically vulnerable people, many of whom had been living on the street.
  • Key finding: Data from three communities show the longer participants stayed in the Project Roomkey program, the less likely they were to return to homelessness — and the more likely they were to move into permanent housing.
  • “Project Roomkey was a game changer in how communities provide emergency housing to people experiencing homelessness across California,” says Nichole Fiore, Principal Associate at Abt Global.

Rockville, MD — Project Roomkey (PRK) successfully provided emergency housing and services to 62,000 people experiencing homelessness during the early years of COVID by getting those who were medically vulnerable off the street and into hotels and motels while also becoming a national model for emergency housing programs, according to a new independent evaluation of the program by Abt Global. The California Department of Social Services launched PRK at the peak of the initial COVID emergency in spring 2020, with the goal of protecting people experiencing homelessness from exposure to the virus and thus reducing the strain on the health care system.

Abt’s Evaluation of California’s Project Roomkey Program finds the program achieved its goals, with state and local officials working together during a period of historic pressure to overcome an array of obstacles, from staffing shortages to stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing mandates. “Despite these challenges,” the report concludes, “various state agencies, health clinicians, homeless service system leaders, public health experts, local governments, Tribal jurisdictions, and homeless service providers quickly came together to launch a program that transformed how homeless service systems offer interim housing across the state.”

The program was at its most robust from April 2020 through June 2021 and, as of October 2020, was providing housing and services in more than 16,000 committed hotel and motel rooms. The program served people mostly age 65 and older who have preexisting conditions, from chronic lung disease and asthma to diabetes and serious heart conditions. Most communities tried to address participants’ needs by providing various supportive services at the PRK sites, including physical and behavioral health care, assistance with activities typical of daily living, benefits assessments, case management, housing navigation, and transportation.

PRK slowly began to ramp down as the COVID emergency waned in the summer of 2021, with only a handful of communities still operating sites at the end of last year. Abt began to evaluate the program in 2022, conducting web surveys, phone interviews, and visiting PRK sites in the counties of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Tulare, and Ventura.

Abt assessed the program’s final outcomes from homeless service system data in three communities — finding the longer people stayed in a PRK site, the less likely they were to exit to homelessness and the more likely they were to find permanent housing. According to data provided by the state’s Department of Social Services, 22 percent of PRK participants exited to permanent housing, while another 11 percent found temporary housing. An additional 25 percent left the program to move into other emergency shelters, while only 4 percent transitioned to institutional settings such as hospitals, board and care, nursing homes, or substance use treatment facilities. Only 15 percent of participants exited to an unsheltered setting, while the exit destinations of the remainder of participants were recorded as unknown.

“The quick design and program implementation and infusion of federal, state, and local resources to create and operate this program were unprecedented in their speed and scale,” the report concludes. “Not only did PRK meet its original goal of saving the lives of people who were experiencing homelessness, but the program enhanced interim housing options in some communities across California.”

“What we can say with certainty after analysis of this program is Project Roomkey transformed how homeless service systems offer emergency housing across the state,” says Nichole Fiore, a Principal Associate at Abt and the lead author of the study. “This program was a game changer for homeless services systems during the pandemic. The emergency housing model provided individual rooms where people could bring or store their possessions and did not have to be separated from their partners or pets. By giving people autonomy, privacy, and safety, Project Roomkey provided features that are often missing from traditional shelter models and thus lead to lower participation among people who really need shelter. As a result, in some communities, PRK was able to bring people indoors who had previously been unwilling to use traditional, congregate shelters.”

The full evaluation is available at

The Abt Global evaluation was funded by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

About Abt Global 
Abt Global is a global consulting and research firm that uses data and bold thinking to improve the quality of people’s lives and advance equity. From conducting landmark U.S. housing studies to evaluating COVID vaccine effectiveness or incentivizing clean energy in Africa and Asia, Abt implements complex programs and leads major research in the U.S. and more than 50 countries. 

Eric Tischler 
Abt Global 
(301) 347-5492

Mike Roth 
for CHCF

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