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As efforts collapse to place homeless in hotels, L.A. officials propose new, $800-million plan

Wendy Brown, 58, walks through the hallway where she now resides at the Cadillac Hotel in Venice.
Wendy Brown, 58, who spent three years sleeping on sidewalks, walks through the hallway where she now resides at the Cadillac Hotel in Venice. As part of Project Roomkey, she is sleeping in a $240-a-night room off the boardwalk.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic is slashing tax revenue across the board, officials Tuesday unveiled an $800-million plan to house Los Angeles County’s homeless people who are most vulnerable to the disease.

The three-year program proposed by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority would employ a combination of bridge housing, rental subsidies and rehousing services, all leading to permanent placements for 15,000 people who are considered most vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age or health conditions.

The plan is a recasting of the county’s goal to shelter those people in leased hotels and motels as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey. That program has fallen short, with the county securing enough rooms for close to 4,000 people.

While the homeless authority must start rehousing those 4,000 as leases begin expiring next month, it has also committed to finding homes for the remaining 11,000 who never got into a hotel room.

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An ambitious Los Angeles County plan to lease hotel and motel rooms for 15,000 medically vulnerable homeless people is falling far short of its goal and may never provide rooms for more than a third of the intended population.

“We need sustainable housing solutions for this vulnerable population,” LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston said in a written statement. “We set the goal of rehousing 15,000 people, because that’s the estimated number of people experiencing homelessness who are 65 or older, or who have an underlying health condition, making them highly susceptible to hospitalization or death should they contract COVID-19. This is about saving lives. We are not backing away from that number. We know how to house them. We need the resources from the city, county, state and federal government to do it.”

Funding for the plan remains uncertain. The report outlines a number of potential sources that would rely heavily on federal and state coronavirus relief programs largely administered through the city and county. LAHSA’s report, submitted Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors, concedes that the organization must compete with other demands on those funds.

The plan would require $600 million of new funding, on top of $200 million from existing homeless programs. Those existing programs, however, which rely heavily on the Measure H homeless sales tax, are facing a budget crunch because of lost business activity resulting from the coronavirus.

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County officials estimate that the $359 million expected annually from Measure H will be cut by around $200 million over the next two years.

The Measure H money pays for a range of services, including rental subsidies, prevention, outreach and case management for shelters and permanent housing.

“I am committed to working with my colleagues to make a significant down payment on this plan, but I am not wearing rose-colored glasses,” L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in a written statement.

“L.A. County alone cannot sustain the cost of housing these thousands of sick and elderly men and women. To preserve housing for these vulnerable residents, we will need the support of city, state and federal governments as well.”

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LAHSA’s plan envisions an initial phase through next June to provide bridge housing with temporary rental subsidies for nearly all of the 15,000, with a small number moving directly into permanent housing with long-term subsidies.

Over the next two years, those in bridge housing would be assessed for permanent placements. Those having higher needs would go into supportive housing, while others would receive longer-term subsidies designed to let them transition into permanent housing.

About $45 million of the funds are meant to retain hotel and motel rooms after the initial 90-day leases expire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for 75% of that cost is set to expire this month, but LAHSA hopes to retain at least some of the rooms to aid the transition.

The plan calls for about 800 people currently in those rooms to be moved into bridge housing each month to complete the leasing program by November. Efforts will also be made to purchase or obtain long-term leases on some of those hotels and motels. Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sounded cautiously optimistic that the city and county would be able to lock down larger properties by either purchasing or renting them.

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“If rents come down, if housing options go up, this could be done more cheaply, more quickly and into real housing that’s already built today,” Garcetti said last week after making an appearance in U.S. District Judge David O. Carter’s courtroom.

Carter last week announced an agreement between the city and county that would see the county fund services for the creation of 6,000 beds for homeless people in the city of Los Angeles over the next 18 months. It wasn’t clear how the agreement would blend with the LAHSA plan announced Tuesday.

Neither Garcetti nor his team has yet said what specific types of shelter would be made available, but the agreement stipulates that people living near freeways and people over the age of 65 would be prioritized. The emphasis on those groups, at least in the short term, could displace others who currently receive the highest priority for housing based on a complex scoring system that takes into account disabilities such as mental illness and substance use.

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“These are our parents and grandparents, our neighbors with disabilities and chronic conditions — we must not let them down,” said LAHSA Commission Chair Sarah Dusseault. “Anything short of housing the 15,000 most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness puts this population, already so exposed, at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. We can’t let that happen.”

Other elements of the plan include a 50% increase in LAHSA’s prevention program, beefed-up tenant protections and efforts to more quickly fill vacancies in existing supportive housing, which sometimes remains empty for months after tenants leave.

Homelessness has surged again in Los Angeles this year. The annual point-in-time count released earlier this month estimated the county’s homeless population at 66,433, up nearly 13% from the previous year, the second consecutive double-digit percentage increase. The estimate for the city was 41,290, up almost 14% — only slightly less than last year’s increase of 16%.

Those numbers are from January, before the pandemic forced people inside and ground the economy to a halt. Economists and housing experts expect that the rise in unemployment will mean more people are forced to live on the street.

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“Last week, the county and city reached a new milestone in their long-standing partnership to address homelessness — committing unprecedented resources to bring more Angelenos indoors who currently live on the streets,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Now is the time to build on this platform, this momentum and this partnership — and federal and state resources must be part of this collective effort.”

Hours after the announcement, David Rodriguez, 45, straddled his bike off Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz near an encampment that has progressively become more congested during the pandemic. It’s behind a Goodwill and across from a construction site, which has pushed the tents closer together. Rodriguez, who is homeless and lives nearby, said that since the pandemic began, the city had brought portable toilets and two washing stations. Another man cleaned the sidewalk with a mop and soap.

They’re all keenly aware of how quickly the virus could strike, Rodriguez said. Volunteers continue to dole out food, but he said it has still been hard to get meals. He receives general relief from the state but has yet to receive his $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government.

Homeless in Hollywood for 12 years, Rodriguez would welcome a hotel room that could turn into something permanent. He believed many of his friends would as well, so long as it came without many strings attached.

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Rodriguez had heard of Project Roomkey and said he met recently with an outreach worker about applying for a room. He had also seen billboards touting the permanent supportive housing being built from Proposition HHH funds. The lack of visible progress frustrated him and made him less than optimistic that he’d get a chance to move indoors.

“My friends haven’t got housed yet. None of them,” Rodriguez said. “If there’s an opportunity, and people aren’t forced inside, I think they would give it a go. I would try.”


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