Project Roomkey Has Placed 9,400 Homeless People Into Temporary Hotel Rooms. Now What?

Julie Mariane gathers her belongings in a motel room provided to homeless people by the NGO St. Joseph Center, as she gets ready to be transferred to a hotel room in Venice Beach, California on April 26, 2020. (Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP)

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In April, when Governor Newsom announced Project Roomkey — aimed at moving 15,000 homeless Californians into rented hotel rooms — it was lauded as a "win-win."

Homeless people would get to come indoors, and hotels would get to recoup lost income from the collapse of the tourism industry.

Unprecedented in scale, it was seen as ambitious, even audacious, though some doubted if the state had the ability to accomplish such a vast undertaking in such a short timeframe.

Two months later, according to the Governor's office, 9,400 rooms are now occupied, a third less than the 15,000 goal.

About 5,000 more rooms have been acquired, but not yet filled.

(Los Angeles County also set a goal of sheltering 15,000 people in hotels, which is, as Mayor Garcetti has admitted, "a stretch goal." As of June 5, there are about 3,600 people in 3,200 hotel rooms.)

Should that be seen as a success? It depends how you view it.

On the one hand, it means California has managed to shelter nearly 10,000 people in just eight weeks.

That's a roughly 33% expansion of its emergency shelter system. Still, it represents a small fraction of the state's overall homeless population of at least 150,000 people.

On the other hand, the program has fallen short of its goal. Advocates for the homeless have chastised state and local officials for not "commandeering" hotels and letting people move in at-will much more expediently.

And there remains the question of what happens when the hotels want their rooms back. Where will people go once they are locked out?

That question lies unanswered. But for those who have received help through the program, the room has provided a much-needed opportunity for respite.

CHANCE TO RECOVER

One of those being helped is Karen Bierman, 48, from Lakewood, who's been diagnosed with lupus. She suffers from chronic pain and a compromised immune system.

Karen Bierman says she's "thankful" to have a hotel room. (Courtesy Karen Bierman)

Bierman is grateful for her room, which she shares with her two black labrador retriever service dogs. Bierman feels safe, which she hasn't felt in many of the other places she's lived.

"It's been a chance to recover and rest, and for that I'm thankful," Bierman said. "They have a nurse that comes in and gives you breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They take your temperature to make sure that you're not infected somehow. It's really good. I am totally amazed."

Bierman has struggled on the edge of homelessness for the greater part of the past two years. For her, it was family conflict mixed with sudden medical bills that robbed her of stability. She's bounced from location to location in rented rooms and cheap motels, using her disability payment. Her only other alternative would be sleeping in her car.

Because she's immunocompromised, she's just the kind of person Project Roomkey was designed to help. But though politicians have framed the program as helping the homeless, its genesis also has a less munificent twist.

Karen Bierman and her two dogs, Shadow and Midnight. They're living in a hotel during the pandemic (Courtesy Karen Bierman)

AN ALARMING PROJECTION

Back in March, state officials produced an alarming model that predicted coronavirus could sweep through the state's homeless population, and quickly send up to 12,000 people to the hospital. That alone would have overwhelmed the state's hospital system, potentially with disastrous consequences. It moved state officials such as Governor Newsom to propose a massive sheltering effort.

So, on April 3, Newsom announced the plan to rent hotel rooms to quickly shelter 15,000 of the oldest and most medically vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.

"It's all around saving lives, and it's all around, as I suggest, decompressing our medical system, particularly our hospitals in the state of California," said Newsom when he announced the program.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the new hotel initiative in front of a Motel 6 in Silicon Valley. (Screenshot from the livestream of Newsom's speech)

In ordinary times, quickly sheltering 15,000 people would be virtually impossible. Building even a single 100-bed shelter can take more than a year, tied up in a glacial process of politics, community engagement, and inefficient government contracting.

Though temporary motel vouchers have long been used to offer a few weeks of shelter to people on the street, Newsom's proposal was much more ambitious.

Project Roomkey depends on a section of the Federal CARES Act that authorizes spending funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to protect homeless people from COVID-19. FEMA is where Project Roomkey is getting most of its money.

According to state and local officials, FEMA is covering approximately 75% of the program's cost through reimbursement.

The exact cost of the entire project is difficult to ascertain. The Governor's office told us that the cost is being borne by individual counties, not the state, and that those counties will then request reimbursement from the federal government. So it may take months for the total amount to be calculated.


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A 'MASSIVE LIFT'

Regardless of the cost, the reality is that there are thousands of homeless people now indoors, where just a few months ago they were on the street, or close to it.

For those on the ground doing the work of standing up the infrastructure of Project Roomkey, the past two months have been increasingly organized chaos. In Los Angeles, that work has fallen largely to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), and dozens of other nonprofit agencies.

"There's no question when this started that it was a massive lift, literally working around the clock seven days a week to get this infrastructure in place," said Heidi Marston, LAHSA's director.

"But it's almost like a choreographed dance now, when we're opening a hotel. Everyone knows exactly what they're supposed to do."

For example, before the hotels could be occupied, they had to be leased. That process is conducted at the county level, and involves negotiations between several parties.

Meanwhile, reluctant insurance providers have backed out of several deals that could have yielded more rooms.

Once the hotels are actually leased, they have to be prepared for full-time occupancy. That means physically modifying rooms, including the removal of minibars. But it's also organizing systems to deliver three prepared meals a day to clients' doors, and do laundry. Then there's the procurement of supplies, health equipment, and PPE.

One of the biggest bottlenecks has been staffing. In most hotels, a nonprofit agency is contracted to provide on-site case management. But the program also adds health services through on-site nurse practitioners or doctors, as well as 'round-the-clock security.

Nothing like this has been done before with homeless services in California, and Marston says it's tested the capacity of the system.

"It's been a good learning opportunity for us to see not only what we can do as LAHSA, but also what our system can handle," Marston said.

A hotel near downtown Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

BIG UNKNOWNS

For all Project Roomkey has accomplished, it still hasn't ended homelessness for any of the people who have moved into a hotel room. Technically, they are all still homeless, without a permanent residence. Where they will go next remains a big fat question mark.

Interviews with several officials have not yielded a clear answer for long-term plans. One communications director outright laughed when asked what was going to happen next. But there are several possibilities.

Some of the hotels could be acquired by the government and turned into permanent housing, much like the older single-room-occupancy (SRO) residential hotels of an earlier era. In the May 26 meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, officials said they were in talks to potentially acquire four Motel 6 properties being used by Project Roomkey in the county.

More realistically, many of the initial three-month leases may just be extended — so long as FEMA continues providing reimbursements.

But besides that, the thousands moved into the hotels are reliant on the same case management and housing placement system that already existed before the pandemic. That system relies on rental subsidies, government assistance, and a myriad of other public and private resources to "place" individuals into "permanent housing." That was hard before the pandemic, and it's likely even harder now.

For her part, Karen Bierman is staring down a deadline of June 30, the day she says the government lease on her room expires. She's not sure where she's going next, and she says her case manager keeps dodging her calls.

"If I don't find housing by June 30, then what happens?" she said. "I'm scared to death, and I can't go anywhere."

PUBLIC BLOWBACK

As for the public response to Project Roomkey, some are worried about the potential for blowback in the coming months — if the public wonders whether the resources spent on Project Roomkey will make a difference in the long term.

Larry Haynes directs the nonprofit service agency, Mercy House, and points out that the program was initially conceived to minimize the spread of coronavirus among homeless people.

"You really didn't spend money on homelessness, you spent money on a public health concern," Haynes said. "When we are talking about addressing homelessness, the answer is always forever going to be housing."

Project Roomkey is not housing. Its official title in government documents is "Non Congregate Shelter." Any hotel purchased by the government could become permanent housing, but Haynes is acutely aware that there will come a day when the tourism industry will recover, and hotel owners will want their rooms back.

"I would respectfully argue that, in terms of, Is it addressing homelessness? — [that's] a whole other conversation," Haynes said. "And I think the most diplomatic answer I could give to that is, the jury's still out. Because what you would have to do is a cost benefit analysis."

Of course to do that, you have to first know what the cost was.