As the pandemic continues to fuel an already worsening homelessness crisis, a number of city-managed pop-up shelters have been quietly closing their doors. At the same time, Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative to house homeless Angelenos in hotel rooms, is sunsetting and preparing to enter its second phase.
As the coronavirus took hold in L.A. County in April, 26 pop-up homeless shelters, capable of accommodating between roughly 15 and 100 residents at a time, were established in recreation and community centers throughout the city. Currently, only four of the rec center shelters are still operational: Granada Hills, Central Los Angeles, Westwood, and Woodland Hills. While, trailers have been set up at some of the centers to house the homeless, the number of available beds—which is just over 500—is down dramatically from earlier in the pandemic. And while the trailers are still accepting new residents, the rec center shelters no longer are.
The goal is to phase out these temporary solutions and focus on connecting people experiencing homelessness with permanent housing, but advocates worry that some individuals could fall through the cracks at a critical moment and in the midst of a public health crisis.
“We’ve been putting a lot of time into this,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said of the temporary housing during an April 28 press conference. “Shame on all of us if we let people come into these rooms and then when this crisis is over, we let them go back onto the street.”
Garcetti’s office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, but a spokesman told a Los Angeles Times reporter who’d inquired about the closed shelters that the city is “consolidating sites and resources to make it easier for [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] and service providers to prioritize placements in longer-term shelter and housing.” According to the Times, COVID-19 spread became a concern at the shelters, as eight confirmed cases were reported at the Pan Pacific Park location alone.
The pop-up shelter closures are happening simultaneous to the gradual phasing out of Project Roomkey, which is currently housing 4,180 people experiencing homelessness in hotel and motels rooms across the city. Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority executive director Heidi Marston explains that Project Roomkey was the state of California’s phase one plan of addressing the homeless housing need, and that Project Homekey, a phase two plan that focuses on permanent housing, will commence. According to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, “Under the Homekey program, counties will partner with the state to acquire and rehabilitate a variety of housing types: hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, residential care facilities, and other tiny homes. All these new placements will serve people experiencing homelessness.”
“Project Roomkey will have to end, but we want it to be a phased approach over a long period of time that makes sure that we can maintain capacity during the pandemic,” Marston says. “Most importantly, so that people who have been sheltered through Project Roomkey don’t go back to the street.”
An email sent to members of the Los Angeles Aging Advocacy Coalition (LAAAC) expressed concern about the future of Project Homekey, particularly when it comes to housing senior citizens. “As you can imagine, what these projects are doing is prioritizing housing resources for the unforeseeable future,” the August 5 email from LAAAC’s managing director read. “Meaning that if you ‘miss the boat’ and aren’t granted one of these units now, it might be a while until resources are available for you.”
Homeless advocates and downtown business interests alike are also concerned about temporary housing options beginning to evaporate, fearing that it will send people to already overburdened shelters or back onto the streets.
“Folks who wanted help, who were housed in pop-up shelters, were at a point in their experience with homelessness that they were seeking assistance and care,” says Estela Lopez of the Downtown Industrial District business improvement district. “Now we’re turning them back to the streets; we are losing the battle.”
Despite the temporary programs and the recent opening of bridge shelters in both Los Feliz and Van Nuys, Reverend Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, says Los Angeles’ handling of the homelessness crisis is the “picture of failure.”
“It’s true that the mayor and LAHSA are going to create 7,000 more units, or going to rent 7,000 more motel rooms, but that won’t even get us back to where we were previously, pre-pandemic,” Bales says. “And pre-pandemic, we were at the highest amount of people on the street ever. So right now, I can accurately say that we have the most people we’ve ever had on the street, and it’s not being addressed urgently.”
The Union Rescue Mission, located in the heart of Skid Row, has had to reduce its maximum occupancy due to the coronavirus, decreasing capacity from 1,000 to just 550. Bales says the situation is at a breaking point.
“Every time I hear somebody saying from our city or county how great we’re doing, they are not right,” Bales says. “There’s no other county or city that has anywhere near the number of people on the streets.”
Lopez wonders how Measure H and Prop HHH resources are being allocated. “There is money going into the homelessness space, but our battle has been an abject failure,” she says.
Marston explains that finding housing and potentially permanent shelters is “not a zero-sum game,” and that LAHSA is taking a “holistic approach” to the homeless housing crisis, looking at the existing spaces as well as new sites. According to the governor’s office, the state has earmarked $1.3 billion in funds for cities and counties to put toward buildings that will become Homekey facilities.
“What’s unique about this moment is that we have unprecedented buy-ins, support, and political will to get these things done, and we’ve built a ton of momentum in activating a faster response,” Marston says. “I’m hopeful that all the momentum we’ve built to get people inside quickly can be maintained.”
People working on the streets to connect the homeless with housing and resources are not as hopeful.
“We can’t adapt the needs of the people to the system that we’ve set up,” Bales says. “It’s a total disenfranchisement. People are reduced to survival mode out here.”
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