There can be opportunity in disaster. That certainly appeared to be the case in California when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to most discretionary travel and sent the hotel industry into a tailspin.
Thousands of rooms, sitting empty. Could they provide a temporary solution to homelessness? At the least, could they provide a safe haven for the homeless people most vulnerable to COVID?
That was the thinking behind Project Roomkey, a bold statewide effort launched in spring 2020 on the wings of federal money. In Los Angeles County, it offered the hope that the most at-risk homeless people could ride out the pandemic in hotels — and eventually be placed in permanent housing.
But while the program, now winding down, improved the lives of many, it never got close to its goal. Uncertainties about funding bred confusion over how long it would last, and hotels eventually began returning to their regular customers.
Since its launch, Project Roomkey has moved 9,000 people in L.A. County into private rooms. More than 2,000 of them transitioned into permanent homes.
But, peaking at just over 4,200 rooms, it never got close to an ambitious goal locally of securing rooms for all the estimated 15,000 eligible homeless people, who accounted for about one-quarter of all homeless people countywide. While more than 5,000 languished on a waiting list, others found the program’s curfews and isolation too much to bear. More than a third of those who took a room left without explanation.
Those clashing numbers highlight divergent views of Project Roomkey. Some judge it a brilliant success and others a tough learning experience, two assessments that are not strictly contradictory.
“The benefit of Roomkey was we’ve never seen the massive movement of as many people in as short a time,” said John Maceri, chief executive of the People Concern, a major Southern California provider of homeless services.
But after only about three months in the program, Maceri pulled the People Concern out of its contracts to operate two Koreatown hotels. He said his decision was partly because of delays in reimbursement, but also because he couldn’t see where it was headed.
“One of the concerns we had from the beginning was, ‘What was going to be next?’” Maceri said.
Proponents of Project Roomkey assert that it met its primary goal of preventing deaths that would have occurred if COVID-19 overwhelmed homeless shelters and camps, as experts feared at the outset of the pandemic. In the early stages, the hotel rooms took in medically vulnerable residents from shelters, which were required by pandemic rules to empty up to half their beds to create more distance between people.
As evidence mounted last year that the virus was not taking a higher toll in homeless camps than elsewhere, Project Roomkey’s lifesaving mission evolved into something more like a traditional shelter program.
The homeless services agencies contracted to operate the hotels — initially funded only for health monitoring, food service and security — got additional money to include funding for staff who would help homeless people find permanent housing.
From the beginning, the architects of Project Roomkey also vowed that no one leaving the program would be abandoned back to the street — a goal that was only nominally met. Hundreds chose on their own to return to the streets, and the options for the rest varied. A couple hundred were able to stay put after the city or county purchased the hotels they were in. Some were able to move into private rooms with motel vouchers. But a majority, like those at the venerable Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, were ultimately faced with traditional shelters as the only alternative.
The closure of the 165-room Sportsmen’s Lodge was disrupted when the owner pushed up the deadline of a planned renovation, said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and chief executive of LA Family Housing, a homeless services and housing nonprofit that operated the site. There were too many residents for the staff of LA Family Housing to handle at once.
he solution was to split the residents into groups and work with one half first. Those in the first group were given only three days to choose between shelter or the street. Klasky-Gamer said the agency had rental subsidies for all the residents, but there weren’t enough landlords that would accept them. With the options at hand, not all could be offered permanent housing immediately. Some resisted transfer to what is called a congregate shelter, where people sleep in a large room with or without partitions separating the beds.
The last resident left the Sportsmen’s Lodge July 24. In the end, all chose interim shelters, Klasky-Gamer said.
But over the 14 months of Project Roomkey, many others rejected that choice. In July, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that nearly 900 Roomkey residents were known to have returned to the streets and another 3,300 could not be accounted for.
“They get comfortable in the motel, then it’s almost like, ‘My vacation from my horrible life on the street is over, and I’m just going [back] to my horrible life,’” said Tescia Uribe, chief program officer of PATH, a homeless services and housing agency that operated four hotels.
Homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people themselves all say the uncertain end dates led to mistrust. Many were promised a permanent roof when their stay ended, but the complicated process of lining up vouchers and signing leases couldn’t be completed before the hotel closed.
One resident of the Sportsmen’s Lodge, who asked not to be named because some members of his family don’t know he’s homeless, told The Times he was lucky to find a housing subsidy and a lease — because many of his friends in the hotel were heading back to streets instead of staying in a shelter. The man said it could have been the same for him if not for the help of a case worker and good fortune.
After moving into the hotel in February, he applied for a new driver’s license and Social Security card, both of which he had lost. Those documents only arrived in June, allowing him to dive into looking for a new place to stay.
“That was a full-time job,” he said.
The week before the hotel was scheduled to close, he found a small apartment in the San Fernando Valley.
“If I hadn’t found this apartment, they told me I was gonna have to go to a shelter this weekend,” he said days before the hotel closed.
That wasn’t an acceptable option for him.
“I probably would have tried to just bounce around from friends’ houses instead of going to the shelter.”
Will Sens has lived in Los Angeles for five years — spending much of that time working at an Olive Garden in Glendale, while picking up other odd jobs to pay rent. But his future is cloudy.
Sens ended up on the street after his landlord kicked him out in the winter of 2019-20. He then spent much of last year living in the Metro station at Vermont and Beverly before staying in a tent at Echo Park Lake. That finally led to an offer of shelter at the L.A. Grand hotel downtown.
While he was grateful for the room, he was frustrated with staff he feels are not properly trained. Still, the reliable meals and hot water were a great relief. Rather than wondering where his next shower will be, he’s used the time to plan.
He knows the hotel might not be an option after September. He’s at the very early stages of looking for a permanent place for himself and his girlfriend and is not optimistic they’ll find something by the time the hotel closes.
A shelter is not acceptable to him.
“How about coronavirus and people being on top of each other?” he said. “Another thing the shelters lack is spatial privacy. It’s not a home.”
Ashley Bennett, a former LAHSA outreach worker who is now working with Ground Game LA, a group that advocates for homeless people and provides services to them, said it makes no sense to end the program now, even if it has flaws.
“Right now, we’re kind of transitioning into this phase where folks have no idea where they’re going to go next,” said Bennett. “So many are just in a constant state of fear.”
The city and county should be renting more rooms, she said, as well as buying more buildings through Project Homekey — a state funded program to buy hotels and other buildings to be converted into housing for homeless people.
The city and county each purchased 10 Homekey sites last year, five of which were already in the Roomkey program, allowing their residents to remain indefinitely. A second round of funding is on the way but will not be available before September, when the Roomkey money was expected to run out.
For the service providers who operated 39 hotels and motels at the program’s peak, Project Roomkey has been both exhausting and invigorating.
“I think Project Roomkey has been a fantastic success,” Klasky-Gamer said. “We saw that when you invest resources, you see solutions.”
But the exhilaration turned sour for some.
“It started out as being exciting and wonderful,” but the quick expansion was “chaotic and hard,” Uribe said. “I don’t know as we’re growing that the staff all have the proper training, experience, world knowledge or knowledge of what they’re getting into.”
Initially hotels were enthusiastic to participate when vacancies were at their lowest. But at varying points throughout the last 18 months, the prospect of Los Angeles reopening and tourist and business travel returning made sheltering homeless people less appealing. For some operators, there was also a reputational risk. One downtown hotel was worried about how participating in the program would affect its brand, according to a report issued last year by a city analyst.
Now occupancy rates are trending upward again. Hotel occupancy in Los Angeles in the second week of August stood at 74%, which was up from 50% the same week last year and down from 87% occupancy in 2019, according to STR, a Tennessee company that tracks hotel data.
Both the startup and shutdown of hotels were confounded by the shifting horizon of funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When the reimbursement was set to expire at the end of last year, city and county officials began closing hotels in the fall, only to learn in January that the new Biden administration was extending the funding through this September and increasing the reimbursement retroactively from 75% to 100% of the cost. Then the nonprofits administering the program began preparing to close the remaining 16 hotels even as they hoped that the federal reimbursement would be extended again — as it ultimately was.
“I think we’ve seen the roller coaster of [Project Roomkey] since the beginning,” said Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which oversaw the services contracts. “FEMA funding is supposed to end in September, but we’re still not clear if that’s going to actually happen.”
The first hotel closed to Roomkey clients last August. By year’s end, 21 of the 39 locations had closed, eliminating more than half the available space. The closures continued into 2021, as eight more hotels were phased out even after the January extension.
The rationale for the early phaseout was to limit its costs — because they weren’t immediately reimbursed by the federal government —and also provide operators time to find new housing.
Cheri Todoroff, who was named director of the county’s Homeless Initiative this spring, said the county continued closing hotels after the funding was extended because the up-front spending — projected to total $111 million — had to be balanced against the need for other types of housing, such as additional interim shelters, recuperative care and permanent homes.
“The goal was having the full range of different housing types, so that we can serve the maximum number of people,” Todoroff said.
In contrast, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti seized on the renewed funding to reopen six hotels that had only recently closed. Initially the minor partner in Project Roomkey, the city now operates twice as many rooms as the county at a cost expected to total $133 million through September.
In reopening hotels, the city strayed further from the original purpose of Project Roomkey by using the rooms for political ends. The L.A. Grand, more than twice the size of any other in the program, with 483 rooms, was being phased out and had only about 200 residents in March when it became the primary destination for more than 100 homeless people who were being removed from Echo Park. Now the Cadillac Hotel in Venice has taken in dozens of people from camps being cleared on Ocean Front Walk.
The future of those reopened L.A. city hotels, and the six operated by the county, is now in flux again after the Biden administration again extended federal funding through the end of the year and Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $150 million in the new state budget to continue Project Roomkey. Newsom and the mayors of several large cities have asked the federal government to extend its reimbursement.
In an interview, Newsom’s top advisor on homelessness, Jason Elliott, told The Times that renting hotels remains necessary for public health because of the Delta variant and low vaccination rates among homeless people. As of July 19, just 43% of Los Angeles County’s homeless population had received one vaccine dose and 33% was fully vaccinated, according to data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Both city and county officials say they are evaluating how many hotels can stay open with the extended funding.
“The state has made L.A. County eligible to receive $34 million in additional funding that can potentially be used for Project Roomkey,” county spokesperson Christina Villacorte said.
Through the ups and downs, proponents of Project Roomkey say they have remained steadfast in their commitment that no one leaving the program would be forced back to the streets.
“It is something we should honestly look back on with pride,” Klasky-Gamer said. “We protected them and our community at large from greater infection rates of COVID. But the work still needed to be done to provide permanent solutions to ending homelessness in their lives.”
Jose “Che” Ramirez, Los Angeles’ deputy mayor for homelessness, said that Roomkey worked in Los Angeles and offered lessons that will help city officials more humanely shelter homeless people.
“In the middle of a pandemic, it definitely allowed us to expedite our ability to bring people indoors,” he said.