The end of the Roomkey project leaves some homeless people in limbo

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As COVID-19 swept across the United States in early 2020, cities in California participated in a statewide program called Project Roomkey to lease hotels as temporary shelter for medically vulnerable homeless people. . LA officials also aimed to use the initiative and its one-time funding as a stepping stone to permanent housing for tens of thousands of homeless people. The Roomkey project is set to end on September 30, and some participants say it hasn’t delivered on 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 guests — about a year ago. At the time, Simpson thought it would be a quick bridge to permanent housing. “That was my understanding. This is the goal of this program: to obtain your permanent accommodation.

Federal funds for the Roomkey project are drying up, and Simpson’s only immediate option after that may be a group shelter. After a year of adhering to 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 is not alone. Data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority shows that just under a third of the thousands of people who have left Project Roomkey in LA County to date have moved into permanent housing.

Initially, LA city and county officials aimed to place 15,000 people in Project Roomkey, a number based on estimated need. Instead, the number has been closer to 8,900, according to LAHSA chief Heidi Marston. Of the 7,754 people who have left Project Roomkey so far, according to the most recent data provided by LAHSA, 2,118 (about 27%) have moved into permanent housing. The largest group, 2,958 people, went to other types of temporary shelters. The remaining 2,678 people – just over a third of all people who have gone through the program – have either returned to the streets, died, been institutionalized or incarcerated, or are missing.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure people have options,” Marston said. The agency hopes to be able to offer everyone who remains in the program some kind of emergency housing and the opportunity to continue working on permanent housing, she added.

But in the meantime, with the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19, some Project Roomkey customers are concerned about the health risks of group shelters when hotels close. Guests staying at Sportsmen’s Lodge, a Studio City-based hHotel facing impending closure, posted an open letter this month on the Knock LA website, demanding to stay put until service providers guarantee them permanent housing, as they say they were promised upon arrival.

Meanwhile, some officials say permanent housing placements are just one indicator of success.

“The original reason Roomkey was started was to provide temporary housing for people 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 salvation. Army, the charity that runs the LA Grand Hotel Downtown.

In fact, the program may have played a big role in Los Angeles avoiding the worst predictions of how the virus could impact the area’s homeless population.

At the start of the pandemic, researchers projected that nearly 28,000 homeless people in Los Angeles could contract COVID-19. According to LAHSA, as of this month, about 7,400 homeless people in LA County have been documented as having the virus — nothing like the wave of illness some imagined.

And for those who have made the transition from the Roomkey project to permanent housing, the program has provided much-needed stability. Esiquio Reyes, 36, came to the Roomkey project after seven years without housing. A cancer survivor with ongoing health issues, he moved into 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 sounds almost too good to be true, and he fears something is going wrong. “Let’s hope there’s no other shoe” to drop, he said.

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