This week, hotels across California began another wave of emptying rooms as ‘Project Roomkey‘, California’s $100 million project to secure temporary shelter for the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, plans its wrap up.
An end to Project Roomkey
The Project formally started ending stays at hotels in August, but has been expanding ends of stays to other hotels this month. While some hotels will still have booked rooms to keep people housed for at least a few more months, the last of Roomkey’s hotels is expected to end in February 2021.
Despite a promising start in April, by the summer Project Roomkey had become notorious for leaving hotel rooms largely vacant. At its highest point, the state only filled out about half of the hotel rooms it had rented, with statistics from May showing that only around 7,000 of the 17,000 hotel rooms had been filled. While counties such as Sacramento and San Francisco were well above the filled-room average, counties such as San Diego and Orange barely reached a quarter filled. In the city of Los Angeles, the filled percentage never reached above 30%.
While the Project had planned to increase the percentages going into the fall because of colder weather and a possible new wave of COVID-19 cases, funding problems caused a premature end to the program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which paid for 75% of the $100 million program, wavered on funding in recent months, causing the Project to end gradually and keep as many housed as possible rather than ending abruptly and sending thousands of homeless people back on the street overnight.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has said that they will keep as many housed as the project runs down.
“Our first priority is those who are in the hotels,” said LAHSA executive director Heidi Marston on Wednesday. “We don’t want them exiting back to the street.”
As there are still around 4,000 people on the program, LAHSA and other homeless groups will work to re-shelter those people as the need arises in the coming months.
Issues over Project Roomkey from day one
Many critics have said that the end result was predictable, as the state and different counties had been slow to temporarily rehouse people.
“It was a $100 million program that, in the end, only housed less than 5,000 people,” former county-homeless liaison Edgar Powe explained to the Globe. “Not only was it mismanaged, but they forgot how many homeless people actually volunteer for this sort of thing.”
“Seasoned homeless people are vary wary of relocations because they have been burned by them before, such as anytime they are forced out of areas for big events that come up. Others prefer the street and there is no helping them. Others have a line on more stable housing and don’t want to jeopardize it. Others didn’t want that 7 P.M. curfew and found it insulting. And the list goes on.”
“A lot of the hotels were actually far away from usual areas of homeless services. And despite Project Roomkey having food and shelter and some medical provided free of charge, they forgot about all the other needs. Some wanted to go to church, some wanted to visit family who were far away. Some wanted to get jobs but couldn’t because their hotel was too far away.”
“It should have been way more localized and there should have been options for hotel room transfers to meet needs and to help them get out of homelessness. That’s why it failed. From those I talked to, it was great having a roof over their head and eating like they haven’t have eaten for years, but after awhile it all became monotonous. The homeless agencies weren’t finding people fast enough, and they were not giving homeless people who did join up the options to do everything they needed, including finding work.”
“Los Angeles is a special note because they only went after hotels with more than 100 rooms and not the many, struggling smaller hotels who really wanted the business and would have had many more homeless stay longer due to a more geographically diverse list of options. Other counties did that too. They ignored the small ones, and as a result, many felt like there was no choice on where to go.”
“That’s why this is ending. That’s why the hotels are emptying again.”
Some homeless assistance leaders did note some positive aspects of the program, such as the number of hotels willing to help on discount and housing a large number of people in a short period of time.
“There were aspects that I think were a huge success,” noted LAHSA governing commission chair Sarah Dusseault. “Housing that many people in a short period of time, I think that is extremely successful. Nothing on that scale has ever been attempted before.”
But with a program wasting around $50 million of federal and state money on blocks of empty hotel rooms and a return to a higher homeless percentage due to a return to the streets for many – a number already found to be at least 20% of those who left the Project so far.
The program is now expected to last until February, coasting on remaining pledged city and county money, as well as remaining CARES Act funding that went to Project Roomkey.