Thanks to a deadly pandemic, a bitter presidential race, raging West Coast wildfires, travel lockdowns, and more, this year has been isolating and anxiety-inducing. And that’s for people with jobs, therapists, health insurance, and homes to shelter in. But for more than 66,400 homeless people in Los Angeles County, who have none of those things and who were already losing three of their unhoused brethren a day on average, those emotions and worries were compounded exponentially.
“COVID-19 has been detrimental to our common public and mental health, but imagine how scary and stressful it would be if you were an unhoused person and you started hearing about a deadly virus that was spreading rapidly in groups of people in close proximity like in an encampment or a shelter, and in public settings like bathrooms, which you use daily,” says Anji Williams, director of the Punk Rock Marthas, an L.A.-born service organization whose young volunteers regularly staff soup kitchens and coordinate food and book drives. “And then a lot of the resources you depend on start closing. Even finding a place to wash your hands becomes a challenge during a shutdown, and that’s the most basic thing you can do to prevent COVID-19. Something had to be done to protect them.”
Enter Project Roomkey, a statewide campaign launched by California Governor Gavin Newsom in April to put up 15,000 of the most vulnerable members of the homeless population—the elderly and the immunocompromised suffering from chronic ailments like heart or respiratory disease—in hotel rooms left vacant by the sudden lack of travel during the COVID-19 crisis.
Despite a few setbacks and challenges throughout the initiative (such as pushback from local governments and uncertainties about funding), the undertaking has been applauded by most, setting up a valuable framework for the hotel industry to work from. “This initiative sets a strong national example of how state leaders can leverage their dollars with FEMA, HUD, and other federal funds to address the needs of homeless populations and protect public health,” said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance To End Homelessness.
The latest U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study reports that California has more than half (53 percent) of all unsheltered homeless people in the country, nearly nine times as many as the state with the next highest number (Florida). Despite most states recording reductions between 2018 and 2019, there was a 3 percent increase nationwide, primarily due to the 16.4 percent growth in the Golden State during that time frame. And that was before the pandemic, which has ignited record unemployment and evictions.
“Homeless Californians often have no option to self-isolate or social distance,” Newsom said at the announcement held at a Motel 6, a chain that was involved in Roomkey to the tune of 5,025 rooms at 47 locations in 19 counties. “By helping [them] off the street into isolation, California can slow the spread through homeless populations, lower the number of people infected, and protect critical healthcare resources.”
Uncontained and rapid COVID-19 spread among the unhoused was a significant concern due to the considerable size of that population.
“It’s only going to get worse; the number of people falling into homelessness in the next 12 to 18 months as a consequence of the pandemic and the unemployment it has caused. Every day without another relief package puts more people in danger,” said Tom Bagamane, the founder of The Giving Spirit, which sourced and assembled 10,000 health and safety kits containing PPE, sanitizer, food, water, toilet paper, and various hygienic products given to most Southern California Roomkey residents.
California, which estimates that 14,200 individuals were served statewide in three months, secured FEMA approval for 75 percent federal cost-share for the initiative, the first of its kind in the nation. Local governments were left to cover the rest of the tab, identify eligible participants, find hotel partners, and coordinate efforts with existing homeless service providers, outreach organizations, charities, philanthropic businesses, and necessary vendors in their area. Each hotel site was supported by medical staff, 24-hour security, and three daily prepared meals. The Marthas created welcome kits featuring snacks, toiletries, and entertainment like books, playing cards, and journals.
“Project Roomkey, most importantly, is a test of our values and collective commitment to provide a roof over everyone’s head,” L.A.’s Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in a statement provided to TripSavvy. “It’s win-win on multiple fronts, protecting vulnerable elderly residents, preserving the public health of the larger community, and providing income to hotel owners.” (It also earned money for cities because booked rooms generate transient occupancy tax, a critical element of city budgets.)
Los Angeles County has the second-highest homeless population in the U.S. (New York takes the top spot only when sheltered and unsheltered homeless people are counted together), so the issue has long been a focus of L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration. Accordingly, the city hit the ground running, ambitiously identifying 15,000 potential residents (in-line with the governor’s overall state goal), set the budget at more than $100 million, and have continued the program long past the initial three months.
According to the project overseer, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, L.A. partnered with 38 hotels, secured 3,825 rooms, helped 5,901 clients, and distributed 687,056 meals between late April and Oct. 19.
“It was implemented at lightning speed in L.A.,” said Phil Ansell, director of L.A. County’s Homeless Initiative. “There was an extraordinary mobilization by the county, city, a network of experienced homeless service providers and charities, and willing hotel and motel owners. The vast majority of the sites were up and running within two months, with some even accepting people within a month of the governor announcing.”
All property owners initially agreed to three-month contracts, with an option for a three-month extension as well. All extended beyond the six-month period. “[It’s] proof of how pleased they were with how the program played out,” Ansell added.
Rachel Gerstein, the owner of a Koreatown boutique hotel (names are withheld to prevent walk-ups and criminal activity) that joined the project in April and has recommitted currently through Dec. 7, affirms that it isn’t bureaucratic BS. “There was never a mandate to shut down hotels in L.A., but overnight we had almost zero traffic. We closed for about 14 days,” Gerstein explained. “Looking back, it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but it was very dramatic. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to keep my staff working. We had just gotten our license to add a bar and redesigned the lobby. We were ready to re-launch and then nothing. It was demoralizing.”
She thought Roomkey could be the solution (and a way to help fellow, less fortunate Angelenos) but was concerned about two things: staff safety and effects on the surrounding residential neighborhood. “They walked me through how it would work, were responsive to questions, and had strategies to keep people safe and solve problems. Then, we had a meeting, and all but two people wanted to come back to work,” Gerstein said. “There are lots of stigmas about people living on the streets, but I walk the hotel once a week, and it’s immaculate—you could eat off the carpet—and running smoothly. There’s no difference between our new guests and public guests.”
Neither of her initial concerns proved to be an issue, either. “This was probably a safer working environment for my staff than public guests because of the rules and safety measures,” she added.
The project, which is currently set to wrap up in L.A. in February 2021, did have its problems and detractors. First and foremost, they were unable to reach all 15,000 potential residents. Ansell says there were many reasons, including insurance or brand concerns, an inability to negotiate an acceptable room rate with owners, and uncertain FEMA funding that could end at any time. “Fifteen thousand was an initial assessment of who would meet eligibility criteria, not a realistic assessment of what would be possible,” Ansell added. “We’re very pleased with the numbers we did reach, and we’re working hard to get them into more permanent housing as we ramp down. There’s no question that Roomkey was a lifesaver, and because of it and other efforts, the incidence of COVID-19 is far lower in the homeless population than we had feared.”
Activist organization Street Watch L.A., which didn’t respond to requests for comment, organized an occupation of a room at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, in May to urge public officials to commandeer more vacant rooms, especially at luxury hotels that benefit from generous city tax subsidies.
In Whittier, a suburb east of downtown, there was public and local government outcry when the Doubletree by Hilton was being targeted as a possible Roomkey site for 200 residents because it was already under contract with PIH Health Whittier Hospital to house COVID-19 unit doctors and nurses trying to prevent exposing their families. “It was our understanding that many of those individuals would have stopped working in the unit if they had to be transferred to another hotel farther away as they weren’t comfortable being in the same hotel,” said Mayor Joe Vinatieri, who added that the proposal also put long-standing plans for a nearby shelter in jeopardy. They took their concerns to their county supervisor, ultimately convincing her that it wasn’t the right move. The city opened its own temporary 139-bed shelter on Sept. 1 while the permanent one is under construction.
Gerstein, who also owns a property in Miami, thinks the program could be beneficial in other places. “There has been a lot of pushback in other cities like New York about projects like this, but I feel so strongly that it can work. It’s a very organized disciplined program, and we’ve felt nothing but supported,” she argued. “Homelessness is a huge problem and a non-partisan issue. We have to all work better to house our unhoused so that all residents can live better. It was also a rebirth for us. We’re ready to reopen to the public, and while we want to go back once restaurants and bars reopen, it’ll be sad when this ends. We’ve developed relationships with the new guests and watched how they feel about themselves change for the better.”
That metamorphosis can’t be denied, according to Williams, who helped get her unhoused friend Timothy placed, an experience that was worth all of the red tape, long hours, and funds.
“It was a chance to get a good night’s sleep and medical help, feel safe, and practice good hygiene and proper nutrition. That is hugely restorative,” Williams said. When you do that for a few days, weeks, or months in a row, it’s life-changing and gives them time to get their head on right. It is not an exaggeration to say it restores their humanity.”
Main Photo: CEO Countywide Communications; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang