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State, county slow to fill leased hotel rooms for homeless

LOS ANGELES — Only about half of the 15,000 hotel and motel rooms that California has leased for mostly homeless people to slow the spread of the coronavirus are now occupied, it was reported May 19.

More than a month into Gov. Gavin Newsom’s program to get homeless people off the streets, the occupied rooms account for — at most — less than 5% of the 151,000 people who sleep on street corners, under bridges and in emergency shelters across California, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing its review of state records.

As of May 18, 7,919 hotel rooms had guests and another 7,700 were vacant, according to figures released by Newsom’s office.

The actual number of leased rooms in the statewide program known as Project Roomkey could be even lower since Newsom’s goal also included rooms reserved for people, homeless or not, who needed to quarantine or isolate themselves because of the coronavirus.

What Newsom launched in early April as a coordinated effort to address homelessness during the pandemic has led to mixed results. But, in general, it has progressed so slowly that it has fallen short of many expectations and is unlikely to get most of those who need help indoors, The Times reported.

In some counties, the largest impediments have been delays in preparing leased rooms for occupancy, not, as the governor has complained, local cities and residents trying to block the process.

In Los Angeles County, at least three cities — Norwalk, Lynwood and Bell Gardens — have gone to court trying to prevent the Project Roomkey from being established in their cities without the prior approval f the cities. A judge has refused to grant the cities the relief they sought.

In other counties, it has been a shortage of staff to care for homeless residents, providing services, such as food services, security, nursing and case management.

It’s a predicament that has not yet arisen in Los Angeles County, where the pace has been set by how fast negotiators have been able to sign leases with hotels and motels. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has filled most rooms within two to three days of their availability. But that could change as the agency finds the ranks of local service providers thinning.

“We’re frankly getting close to understanding what our system capacity is,” said the authority’s interim Executive Director Heidi Marston. “Our big [service] providers are getting stretched. That’s a very real concern. Unless we can bring in more human capital to do this work, we’re going to have a hard time continuing to expand capacity.”

Project Roomkey is largely funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has vowed to reimburse the state and individual counties for 75% of the cost of leasing hotel rooms and providing services. Only homeless people who meet certain criteria, including being older than 65 and having health conditions that make them susceptible for dying of COVID-19, qualify.

However, only rooms that are occupied are covered by FEMA under the program. And while it’s unclear whether some counties are paying hotel owners for rooms that they have leased but haven’t filled, that is not happening in L.A. County.

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously May 12 to find long-term housing for homeless individuals housed temporarily in motels, hotels and elsewhere during the coronavirus outbreak.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored a motion recommending a plan for continuity of housing.

“Since the pandemic began, L.A. County and city have done a remarkable thing. We placed nearly 4,000 medically fragile homeless men and women in temporary housing with more to come,” Kuehl said. “With this motion, we look to the future and ask for a plan to identify and pay for permanent housing for these elderly and sick individuals, many of whom suffer from serious medical conditions. No one wants to see these very frail men and women put back on the streets.”

Ridley-Thomas said the push to temporarily house vulnerable residents was driven by an unprecedented public-private partnership of city officials, private hotel owners, public sector health care workers, disaster volunteers and community nonprofits.

“There can be no truer test of our values than this collective effort to bring our most vulnerable inside and connect them to long-term stable housing,” he said.

Project Roomkey has been the centerpiece of the county’s efforts to move quickly in the face of the pandemic, taking advantage of unused hotel and motels rooms to house the homeless. So far, at least 23 hotel or motel sites have been used to house 1,800 individuals, according to Ridley-Thomas.

The county has also moved to find other spaces to safely isolate and quarantine high-risk homeless individuals, such as those over 65 years old or with underlying health conditions.

Ridley-Thomas said the average age of the homeless people who have been brought indoors to protect them from the coronavirus is 54, noting that many look 15 to 20 years older.

“That’s how harsh homelessness is,” Ridley-Thomas said.

The agreements under Project Roomkey only guarantee housing for three months. Kuehl said the time is right to find longer-term solutions for these vulnerable county residents.

Project Roomkey has not been without its detractors. In April, the Norwalk City Council passed an emergency moratorium seeking to block the county from converting properties into temporary housing for the homeless without the city’s approval. The county sought and gained a court injunction allowing it to move forward with one hotel site.The city councils of Bell Gardens and Lynwood followed suit. The county’s CEO issued an executive order directing county lawyers to take necessary legal action against cities seeking to interfere with emergency measures.

Wave Wire Services