Yolanda Orellana had been living at a homeless encampment on a median in LA’s Del Rey neighborhood for eight months when social service providers approached her, told her the camp had to go, and offered a room in a motel under Mayor Karen Bass’s new homelessness program Inside Safe.
Exhausted from the recent cold weather and the stress of living outside, the 60-year-old was excited by the idea of having a roof over her head. She agreed to get on a bus with her dog and a couple bags of her things. But when she opened up the door to the MacArthur Park motel room she’d been placed in, she was shocked.
“It was dirty,” she says. “It had no toilet paper, [there were] roaches. It had no heat. And there [were] no blankets on the bed — it was two sheets.”
After Orellana and other participants complained, they were moved to a new motel.
This experience is not unique — as the mayor’s signature effort to shelter Angelenos living in encampments has scaled up rapidly over the past few months, an increasing number of participants are voicing concerns about a disorganized rollout process that has left them in subpar motels, or without access to critical services.
Launched just over a week after Bass took office in December, Inside Safe went into effect without much prior planning. The mayor, who promised on the campaign trail that she would house 17,000 people during her first year in office, told KCRW she understands the program has faced some difficulties in its first few months. But speed is her top priority.
“I could have taken three or four months to put this program together, to get people off the streets three or four months later,” says Bass. “I found that to be unacceptable. People are dying every day. And so we absolutely have weaknesses. We've had problems. We're solving those problems as we experience them. But when you have an emergency, you just dive right in.”
Over the course of two and a half months, Inside Safe has swept 11 encampments across the city, and brought more than 500 individuals into some form of shelter. While a handful of those participants have been moved into permanent shelter, the vast majority remain in temporary rooms at motels across the city — some of which have significant habitability issues.
At a motel in Culver City that houses both Inside Safe participants and other unhoused residents on vouchers, people living there reported cockroaches, mold, faulty plumbing, broken locks, and long power outages during which no extra lights or blankets were distributed.
One Inside Safe participant living at the motel, who didn’t want to share her name because she feared retaliation, said these conditions — combined with the lack of supportive services she was receiving — had left her feeling hopeless and depressed. She’s been keeping an extra tent in a box in the corner of her room, in case things don’t work out and she chooses, or is forced, to live back out on the street.
“I don't have a regular case manager, I can't figure out who that is,” she says. “I can't get any response from management, upper management, I've left messages. I'm banging my head on the wall trying to get the assistance that I need.”
Residents at other motels voiced complaints about a lack of wraparound services, including access to regular food.
In one instance, volunteers from the group Fairfax Mutual Aid bought hundreds of dollars in groceries for unhoused residents who the city swept from an encampment near LACMA, after the residents reported that they hadn’t received food during their first weekend at a motel in Silver Lake.
“We didn't know what the food situation was going to be,” says Fairfax Mutual Aid volunteer Morgan Bennett. “We were getting calls the first night asking for food because people were hungry.”
She says participants later began receiving gift cards to McDonald’s and 7-Eleven, and started to settle into their rooms. But last week, they found out they will have to relocate downtown, because the motel they’re in now is set to be used for other Inside Safe participants specifically moved from the council district where it’s located.
Bennett says she believes these issues should have been sorted out before participants were moved in.
“It was kind of just like, ‘Let's get them in a hotel and then figure it out,’ instead of having this program be well-thought-out and executed,” says Bennett. “‘Let's get them off the street and out of people's eyes, and out of the complaining homeowners view.’”
Bass admits that it has been a struggle to find enough manpower to staff the new sites.
“What we would like is the day you leave your tent is the same day you receive services. And so that is a struggle, because the social service providers that do that work are stretched to capacity, as well,” she says.
She also notes that finding affordable motels has been harder in some areas than others. “We have a lot of issues with that, because there tend to be less-expensive motel rooms in inner-city areas, versus all over the city, and we don't want to move people far from where they were camping,” says Bass.
Molly Rysman, chief program officer at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, says the rooms they have secured are in a patchwork of different places and types of motels.
“It might be we're using 20 rooms at this motel, and there's 80 other rooms being used by just regular motel clients,” says Rysman. “In that scenario, there often is not a lot of negotiation with the motel owner, and the motel owner is responsible for the maintenance of the site. Different motel owners maintain sites in very different ways.”
This also means different motels might have different rules — for instance, Rysman says, some require guests to have IDs, which can make it difficult to check in Inside Safe participants who don’t have documents. Because rooms are available to the general public, some participants are also being bounced around from room to room as other bookings come up. Rysman says the goal is to iron out some of these issues in the coming months.
“My hope is that we're going to move to a model more similar to Project Roomkey, where we could enter into agreements with motel and hotel owners from the very beginning, where we say, ‘These are the standards, and these are the conditions you need to meet if you're going to get this income,’” says Rysman.
Right now, the income for some of the motel owners is significant. A representative for St. Joseph Center, the service provider that oversees Inside Safe on LA’s west side, says that while the organization always tries to negotiate for lower rates, they typically pay around the standard nightly rate for Inside Safe rooms.
Receipts shared by one Inside Safe participant at the motel in Culver City showed that her room cost around $160 per night — which would add up to about $5,000 per month, far more than many studio or one-bedroom apartments.
And while Bass says the next step is to move these participants into permanent housing, that might take some time — affordable units are in short supply, and even when unhoused people do receive vouchers, many struggle to find landlords who accept them.
One of Bass’ plans to fix this is by beefing up housing stock through a technique called “master leasing,” where the city leases out blocks of rooms or full buildings, and acts as the de facto landlord, allowing them to move unhoused residents in quickly. She’s also asked for a list of city-owned properties that might be used for housing, and is working with Metro and LA Unified to identify more land.
In the meantime, as more people experiencing homelessness are moved into temporary motels, the city is scrambling to address some of the initial problems that have arisen.
Orellana, who wound up at that MacArthur Park motel with no blankets, said that after she and other participants were moved, they spent a week at a much nicer motel — the Embassy Suites near LAX.
“That was beautiful. It was like, wow, from the ghetto to Beverly Hills,” says Orellana. “I cried when I walked in the room.”
Then, while attending a housing fair, she was offered a spot at a group home in South LA, which she accepted immediately.
“I said yes, before even seeing it. Because I knew that being at the hotel was not a permanent thing, or a long-term thing. Because there's events and these hotels book, and then where would we go? I didn't want to end up back at that roach motel. So I said yes.”
Now, she’s one of just 20 Inside Safe participants who have been moved into permanent housing so far. She says after all the chaos, having some calm and quiet has been a relief.