As the COVID-19 swept the U.S. in early 2020, cities across California participated in a statewide program called Project Roomkey to rent out hotels as temporary shelter for medically vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. LA officials also aimed to use the initiative and its one-time funding as a springboard to permanent housing for tens of thousands of unhoused people. Project Roomkey is scheduled to end by September 30, and some participants argue it hasn’t lived up to its promises.
“I feel cheated,” said Ronald Simpson, 62, who arrived at the LA Grand Hotel Downtown — the largest Project Roomkey site in the state, with nearly 500 clients — about a year ago. At the time, Simpson thought it would be a quick bridge to permanent housing. “That was my understanding. That’s what this program was about: to get your permanent housing.”
Federal funds for Project Roomkey are drying up, and Simpson’s only immediate option after that might be a group shelter. After a year of abiding by Project Roomkey’s strict curfews and other rules, like no visitors, thinking it would pay off in the form of permanent housing, Simpson feels frustrated. “I followed the rules,” he said. “I did what I was told to do. And I’m still here.”
Simpson isn’t alone. Data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority show that a little less than a third of the thousands of people who have exited Project Roomkey in LA County to date have moved on to permanent homes.
Initially, LA city and county officials aimed to place 15,000 people into Project Roomkey, a number based on the estimated need. Instead the number has been closer to 8,900, according to the head of LAHSA, Heidi Marston. Of the 7,754 people who have exited Project Roomkey so far, according to the most recent data provided by LAHSA, 2,118 (about 27%) have moved on to permanent housing. The largest group, or 2,958 people, went to other kinds of temporary shelter. The remaining 2,678 people — a little more than a third of everyone who’s gone through the program — either returned to the streets, died, were institutionalized or incarcerated, or are unaccounted for.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure folks have options,” said Marston. The agency expects to be able to offer everyone still left in the program some sort of emergency housing and the opportunity to continue working on a permanent housing placement, she added.
But in the meantime, with the Delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise, some Project Roomkey clients are concerned about the health risks of group shelters when the hotels close. Clients staying at Sportsmen’s Lodge, a Studio City-based hHotel facing imminent closure, published an open letter this month on the website Knock LA, demanding to remain in place until service providers secure permanent housing for them, as they say was promised when they first arrived.
Meanwhile, some officials say that permanent housing placements are only one metric of success.
“The initial reason Roomkey was started was to provide interim housing for individuals either affected by COVID or the pandemic in general, and to prevent the spread of this deadly virus,” said Sean Kelsey, who oversees programs in the LA Metro area for the Salvation Army, the charity that operates the LA Grand Hotel Downtown.
In fact, the program may have played a significant part in LA avoiding the worst case predictions for how the virus could impact the region’s unhoused population.
Early in the pandemic, researchers forecasted that almost 28,000 people experiencing homelessness in LA could contract COVID-19. According to LAHSA, as of this month, about 7,400 unhoused people in LA County have been documented as having the virus — nothing like the wave of disease some imagined.
And for those who did transition from Project Roomkey ino permanent housing, the program provided much needed stability. Esiquio Reyes, 36, came to Project Roomkey after a seven-year stretch of living unhoused. A cancer survivor with ongoing health problems, he moved to his own apartment in the Hollywood area earlier this month. He said having his own room and services on-site allowed him to gather all the documentation he needed to make the transition.
“I’m pretty excited and scared at the same time,” he said. He added that having his own place seems almost too good to be true, and he worries that something will go wrong. “Hopefully there is no other shoe” to drop, he said.