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Hotels, motels for homeless reported far below capacity

Rooms set aside to slow virus

City News Service | 5/22/2020, midnight

Only about half of the 15,000 hotel and motel rooms that California has leased for mostly homeless people to slow the spread of the coronavirus are now occupied.

More than a month into Gov. Gavin Newsom’s program to get homeless people off the streets, the occupied rooms account for—at most—less than 5 percent of the 151,000 people who sleep on street corners, under bridges and in emergency shelters across California, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing its review of state records.

As of Monday, 7,919 hotel rooms had guests and another 7,700 were vacant, according to figures released by Newsom’s office.

The actual number of leased rooms in the statewide program known as Project Roomkey could be even lower since Newsom’s goal also included rooms reserved for people, homeless or not, who needed to quarantine or isolate themselves because of the coronavirus.

What Newsom launched in early April as a coordinated effort to address homelessness during the pandemic has led to mixed results. But, in general, it has progressed so slowly that it has fallen short of many expectations and is unlikely to get most of those who need help indoors.

In some counties, the largest impediments have been delays in preparing leased rooms for occupancy, not, as the governor has complained, NIMBY interests at the local level. In other counties, it has been a shortage of staff to care for homeless residents, providing services, such as food services, security, nursing and case management.

“This has not been a challenge of leasing hotels,’’ said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is co-chair of the state’s homelessness task force. “The challenge is much more in insufficient numbers of service providers to deal with a much larger capacity of people and a big question about rehousing.’’

Under the program, county officials are responsible for determining how many rooms to set aside for homeless people. But the actual implementation of Project Roomkey is forcing officials from many counties to question how many homeless people “the program can bring in,’’ Steinberg said. That’s because there aren’t enough service providers to help run the hotels and eventually help transition the residents into permanent housing.

It’s a predicament that has not yet arisen in Los Angeles County, where the pace has been set by how fast negotiators have been able to sign leases with hotels and motels. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has filled most rooms within two to three days of their availability. But that could change as the agency finds the ranks of local service providers thinning.

“We’re frankly getting close to understanding what our system capacity is,’’ said LAHSA’s interim Executive Director Heidi Marston. “Our big [service] providers are getting stretched. That’s a very real concern. Unless we can bring in more human capital to do this work, we’re going to have a hard time continuing to expand capacity.’’