April 14, 2021

L.A. County won’t expand hotel program for homeless people

L.A. County won't expand hotel program for homeless people

Citing concerns about the budget, Los Angeles County officials said they don’t plan expand the number of hotels they’re renting to shelter homeless people who are at risk of contracting COVID-19.

As of late last month, the county was renting 12 hotels with 1,350 rooms through a program known as Project Roomkey, according to a county report on the program released this week. It plans to keep 11 of those 12 sites open through September, at the latest.

The majority of these sites were slated to close by March, but a change in how the federal government reimburses the costs associated with the hotels meant the county could keep them open longer. Under the Trump administration, the federal government reimbursed 75% of the costs; the Biden administration has raised that to 100% through September.

The change, though, still left municipalities looking for cash to front the cost of using the hotels while waiting to get reimbursed by the federal government.

“Unfortunately, while [the Federal Emergency Management agency] has committed to covering 100% of the cost of Project Roomkey, it still requires Los Angeles County to pay for most of the operations now and then seek to be reimbursed later — potentially years later,” L.A. County Homeless Initiative Director Phil Ansell said in a written statement.

“Having to advance funds during the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic would place a significant burden on the county’s cash flow.”

The city of Los Angeles has been exploring renting four motels with a total of 200 beds, which the county had previously been using but shuttered. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has cited the city’s fiscal challenges and the cash flow issue as reasons why the city has been slow to expand the program.

Still, he pulled $75 million last month from a city fund to keep open about 1,200 rooms the city already had rented that were slated to close.

The county has been able to either get advances or request expedited reimbursements for about half the costs of renting and running these hotels.

The county has requested $73 million from FEMA for Project Roomkey and has received $12.4 million, county officials said. The Times reported earlier this week that the city of Los Angeles has yet to request any money from FEMA for what it has spent on the hotel program.

Project Roomkey launched at the beginning of the pandemic to shelter homeless people who are older than 65 or at risk of contracting the coronavirus. At the peak of the program last summer, the city and county had 3,774 rooms under lease, but that number began to drop off as hotels closed, and the program never got close to the 15,000 people officials said they wanted off the streets. Currently, there are 2,261 hotel rooms leased across the county, and 1,672 are occupied.

Public health officials and advocates for homeless people have said individual rooms, rather than large shelters, which have experienced large outbreaks, are the safest place place for people without homes at this time. When the enhanced reimbursement was announced, many local elected officials called for a significant expansion of the program.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn had supported an expansion of the program and was disappointed to hear that the county’s budget constraints would keep it from growing.

“Project Roomkey works and it’s been our most successful model for protecting people and addressing homelessness during this pandemic,” Hahn said in a statement. “This is not the outcome I wanted, and unfortunately, this makes it nearly impossible to expand this program.”