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L.A. races to distribute housing vouchers before homeless people are kicked out of hotels

 Guest services associate Mia Rogers, 23, left, gives Project Roomkey guest Stanley Monk, 58, his lunch.
Guest services associate Mia Rogers, 23, left, gives Project Roomkey guest Stanley Monk, 58, his lunch under the watchful eye of LVN Richard F. at a Project Roomkey hotel in Los Angeles in July 2020.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this month, Los Angeles city officials tried something new in their pursuit of pairing homeless people with rental subsidies.

They brought a group of homeless people the paperwork and the resources necessary to get these complicated applications completed.

The lobby and pool area of the Mayfair hotel — whose rooms have been rented to unhoused people through California’s Project Roomkey program — became a pop-up center for people to apply for nearly 7,000 Emergency Housing Vouchers that have been made available to people in Los Angeles County through the federal stimulus package, which was passed earlier this year.

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City and county officials are in a bit of a race against time. Throughout the pandemic, Los Angeles has rented thousands of hotel rooms for homeless people to protect them from the virus. These rooms have been a landing spot as the city conducts outreach in an effort to help people and clear large encampments, such as those in Echo Park Lake and Venice Beach.

Nearly 1,400 rooms are still rented, and while plans could still change, they will begin to close to Project Roomkey participants in the New Year. So pairing these vouchers with people has newfound urgency.

Of the nearly 7,000 vouchers awarded to public housing authorities in the county, very few so far have resulted in leases for people who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Nationally, a similar phenomenon is occurring with the 70,000 vouchers that were created in the American Rescue Plan.

“It’s all hands on deck right now to get vouchers out to those that need them and qualify as quickly as possible,” Douglas Guthrie, president and CEO of the city’s Housing Authority.

“It’s not easy. The quicker we can issue the vouchers, then that triggers the second part of the process of finding housing, which is also very challenging.”

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Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Executive Director Heidi Marston echoed this sentiment, saying that the closure of the hotels is top of mind as her team focuses on getting people’s applications submitted.

“It’s simply just recognizing the timelines around Project Roomkey,” she said. “We are definitely targeting people in Project Roomkey. But there are people in other interim housing sites, and there’s a good amount of folks who are unsheltered. So our outreach teams are also working to enroll people. So every single door to the system is focused on this.”

The city’s housing authority was awarded 3,365 vouchers and Guthrie said that, as of Dec. 17, it had issued 541 vouchers to people. The vouchers had been used, so far, to lease 38 apartments.

The county’s housing authority — known as the Los Angeles County Development Authority — was awarded 1,964 vouchers. Of those, 852 had been issued to people and 52 apartments had been rented using the subsidies.

A half a dozen city and county officials described to The Times a number of challenges they’ve faced since the vouchers became available over the summer. These hurdles were on top of an extraordinarily competitive rental market that’s even pricing out people with well-paying jobs. The large gap between the number of vouchers and the number of units leased reflects partially how hard it is for anyone to rent in Los Angeles, where available units are quickly snatched up and prices make it difficult for many people to find an affordable place to stay.

The first obstacle — before even looking for a unit to rent — had to do with staffing at the housing agencies.

Guthrie said that he needed to hire 35 new people to do the paperwork and make sure applications get completed properly. Doing that hiring has been slow going, but now the city’s housing authority is catching up for lost time. Guthrie said that in recent weeks, his team has been issuing 50-70 vouchers per week. Its goal is to do 100 per week in January.

The county has been able to sift through the mountain of applications faster. That was partially because it hired temps over the summer to help with the process. It’s resulted in the county’s number of issued applications being slightly higher.

L.A. County Development Authority Executive Director Emilio Salas said another challenge that both the city and county have faced is the quality of the applications they’ve received from homeless services providers and LAHSA. Tracking people down and making sure applications have been filled out completely and correctly has been a challenge, he said.

About 1,000 voucher applications from people staying at Project Roomkey sites have been submitted to the city Housing Authority. That’s a portion of more than 3,000 applications for vouchers that LAHSA has submitted to the city on behalf of homeless people. As of last month,  LAHSA had sent another 1,746  applications to Salas’ team at the county.

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Guthrie said that about half of the referrals his team has received lacked basic information, and it’s been very challenging to follow up with the case managers and homeless people themselves.

“The quality of those applications varies substantially,” Salas said.

“Based on the number of referrals that LAHSA is giving us right now, we have enough in the pipeline to really roll up our sleeves and go through them and try to get all of the quality applications in or get whatever other information we need,” he continued. “It’s a ton of telephone triage, of getting back to the service provider and saying ‘you’re missing a signature, you’re missing this document, can you give me this information?’

“The key for us is really the manpower — the ability to staff up quickly to be able to dedicate those resources to this very labor-intensive work.”

On top of the challenges that administering the programs present, finding landlords who are willing to rent to homeless people is never easy. Both the city and county are offering sweeteners to landlords willing to rent to people who are using vouchers. There’s a $2,500 signing bonus for the landlords, along with a $5,000 reimbursement scheme for repairs made to units.

Local officials hope this will get more landlords interested in renting to people who hold the vouchers. The county’s housing authority has hired an outside consulting firm to do inspections on the units — all in an effort to make the process of getting keys into people’s hands more seamless.

“We need to create that energy to get that buy-in [from landlords] ,” said Deputy Mayor for City Homelessness Jose “Che” Ramirez.

Ramirez helped organize the event at the Mayfair, which he said resulted in about 100 voucher applications being completed and submitted to the city’s housing department. There were five people onsite from the housing authority, along with people from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and LAHSA. The relative success that day encouraged him.

His hope is that they can do a similar “pop-up” in the new year at other hotels being rented by the city for homeless people, and in the future, bring the expertise and support of the city’s housing authority and other social services agencies to the streets to help people in encampments complete voucher applications properly.

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.


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