Faced with two crises last spring – the pandemic and homelessness – the city and county of Los Angeles have done something remarkable: They have sheltered the homeless faster than ever and in their own rooms, not in group, as part of a program called Project Roomkey.
At its peak last year, the program provided rooms in hotels or motels with service providers to approximately 4,300 homeless people who, due to their age or underlying health issues, were considered as particularly vulnerable to COVID. The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially pledged to cover 75% of the costs, but after the program ended, the Biden administration retroactively increased reimbursements to 100% and said the program would continue until September.
Instead of seizing the opportunity for additional federal aid and researching thousands of additional rooms, county officials said they would stop looking for new hotel partners and stick with 10 – with around 1,000. rooms – in their wallet. The county general manager said it would be too onerous to pay millions of dollars upfront to more hotels while waiting months or more to be reimbursed by FEMA.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti initially expressed similar concerns. Since then, however, the city has found $ 75 million to borrow from a trust fund in the city’s Department of Building and Security to keep Roomkey running.
The reality, however, is that the pandemic won’t be over for at least several months. And the homelessness crisis will not be over for years to come. Yes, renting hotel rooms is only a temporary solution. Permanent housing is obviously the real solution. Yet while there is federal money on the table to rent hotel and motel rooms through Roomkey, officials should continue to take advantage of it.
It’s ludicrous that FEMA is taking so long to reimburse local governments, but it’s also ludicrous that the city isn’t asking for the $ 59 million it was owed for the Roomkey program that started last spring. To the city’s credit, she paid the $ 100 million FEMA owes her for COVID testing expenses (which are apparently less onerous to file than Roomkey’s expenses). And he recovered nearly a third. What if he had been quick to find Roomkey’s money too? A delay in filing just means more delay in the already slow refund process.
Attracting larger hotels to Project Roomkey was a challenge in the spring. Although more than three dozen hotels and motels across the county participated, city officials have encountered resistance from some of the larger hotels in or near the city center. Eventually the city got a few which gave hundreds of rooms.
It may be even more difficult to persuade them now, given that hotels expect occupancy rates to increase as the city begins to reopen. The Hotel Assn. of Los Angeles recently provided a list of 53 interested hotels with 3,100 rooms across the county. Only 11 are in the city of LA and some of them are quite small, which is an inefficient way to deploy the on-site service providers that are critical to the success of the program. Still, the city needs to look into these small facilities.
Currently, the city has approximately 1,100 rental rooms and is in the process of securing four additional motels which will add an additional 200 rooms. But more is needed. City and county officials are expected to return to hotels that turned them down last year and those that left the program at the end of their lease. If a hotel is partially booked, managers should offer to bypass those bookings. City officials say they are already doing much of the scramble. Its good. County officials should follow their example.
Perhaps the greatest worry among officials and service providers is the grim possibility that thousands of homeless people will end up in hotels with no place to go when Roomkey closes in September. It is a serious concern. But this uncertainty should not prevent people staying in hotels until early fall.
The city and county must also focus on bringing more transitional and permanent housing online. One of the most promising vehicles is Project Homekey, a public program that offered funds last fall to buy hotels, motels, and apartment buildings. The county and city have purchased a number of sites and are working to turn them into housing for the homeless. Gov. Gavin Newsom has offered to fund more Homekey purchases in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Ultimately, these hotels and motels could play an important role in the future of housing for the homeless.