LAX: Post-Pandemic Housing Plan for Homeless Seniors

As Los Angeles County hit the milestone of having helped 3,000 homeless people move from the streets into Project Roomkey hotels and motels in just seven weeks, the Board of Supervisors weighed concrete plans to keep them and other vulnerable populations housed post-pandemic, particularly those 65 and older.

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn, the LA County Chief Executive Office’s Homeless Initiative and the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) each reported to the Board on what it would take to maintain the gains that have been made through Project Roomkey and other interventions prompted by COVID-19, including building on LA County’s Comprehensive Crisis Response and ramping up rapid rehousing strategies.

“Project Roomkey is a staggering achievement that would have been inconceivable under different circumstances and it’s critical that we not lose momentum,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “With homelessness and COVID-19, we have a crisis within a crisis that will require us to use all of our might, all of our imagination, and all of our available resources to address. As LA County wrestles with the unprecedented economic impact of the pandemic, the decision to invest in this effort will be one that truly reflects this Board’s ultimate priorities.”

“Project Roomkey has been a silver lining of this crisis. We have not only been able to help keep these hotels and motels in business, we have been able to move thousands of senior citizens off of our streets at a rate faster than ever before,” Supervisor Hahn said. “We are finally talking about taking action on the homeless crisis in terms of days, not months and years.”

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has shifted Los Angeles County’s multi-faceted homeless services system into overdrive with good reason — we need to protect seniors and our most vulnerable residents,” said Phil Ansell, Director of LA County’s Homeless Initiative, as he reported on an exit plan that would prevent Project Roomkey participants from ending up back on the streets. “This has been an opportunity for our system to demonstrate that it is nimble and efficient and we will continue to use this momentum to do what is right and bring our seniors indoors.”

“We are setting bold goals for a good reason: our priority focus right now is saving lives,” Heidi Marston, Interim Executive Director of LAHSA, said during her presentation. “We are prioritizing people who will likely die if they contract COVID-19. It’s going to take a big investment of resources and alignment, but this crisis has seen many parts of our system come together and operate at unprecedented speed. We have every reason to continue to hold ourselves to that standard.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said LA County will continue its deep collaboration with the State to sustain the progress kickstarted by Project Roomkey. He and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg – the co-chairs of the Governor’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors – have sponsored AB 3269 by State Assembly Members David Chiu and Miguel Santiago, which would require a statewide analysis of housing gaps, followed by local plans to reduce homelessness, and then the establishment of a State office to monitor the implementation of the local plans.

“AB 3269 gets to the heart of the matter around a Statewide and local commitment to provide housing for all those who are homeless and seek a better place than the sidewalk to lay their heads at night,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “LA is ahead of the game, but this bill would give us a State commitment to help us execute our long-term housing plan, particularly for homeless seniors.”

Launched by Governor Gavin Newsom on April 3rd, Project Roomkey is a first-in-the-nation initiative to repurpose vacant hotel and motel rooms for vulnerable, elderly homeless individuals and couples who have no symptoms but are at most risk of contracting COVID-19. The State is working with Counties and Cities across California and the costs will be reimbursable by FEMA since this initiative has been deemed a life-saving emergency mission. Project Roomkey will not only protect high-risk individuals but also prevent the spread of the deadly virus in communities and protect the capacity of the healthcare system. It gives people without a home the ability to stay indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

LA County’s Homeless Initiative is working with LAHSA as well as experienced nonprofit partners to provide the people in Project Roomkey sites with wrap-around services and clinical support. This program is also a boon to cities and property owners, as hotels are facing the stark reality of plummeting vacancy rates during this crisis.

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