As Los Angeles County workers move up to 15,000 homeless people into hotel and motel rooms to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Board of Supervisors has voted to develop a pilot program to keep seniors housed.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn co-authored a motion calling for a plan to expand on the county’s success in using empty hospitality rooms to house homeless seniors.
Twenty-three sites with more than 1,946 beds have been procured under Project Roomkey, a collaboration between the county’s Homeless Initiative, state agencies and other public and private partners. The project emphasizes finding temporary housing for seniors and those with underlying health conditions who are more susceptible to COVID-19.
To date, just 515 beds are in use, but Ridley-Thomas was already considering what’s next for seniors who have been brought in off the street.
“We can’t just think short-term,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We need to be thinking two steps ahead in order to mount a crisis response that is not only comprehensive but sustained. Now is the time to be having these conversations-not when the disaster funding runs out.”
Options for keeping vulnerable populations housed could include using housing vouchers, slots available under a rapid rehousing program and moving people to supportive housing units that are coming online, Ridley-Thomas said.
In a statement issued after the vote, Hahn highlighted the story of a 65-year-old former software programmer named Bobby, who had been living in his car for 10 years.
“It’s like I have to pinch myself all the time to believe this,” Bobby said. “I would love it if they turn this into permanent housing because it would be kind of a bummer to have to go back to the car. To have permanent housing would be life changing-mentally, spiritually, every kind of way.”
Hahn said the county was putting unprecedented resources to work.
“This is the level of urgency that the homeless crisis has demanded for years,” Hahn said. “When the day comes that this pandemic is behind us, we need to ensure that we can take advantage of the progress we have made and make sure that the people we have found shelter for do not end up back on the streets.”
The board recognized the need for eliminating some red tape to combat the pandemic and two weeks ago granted Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai authority to make a wide range of decisions on the board’s behalf. Hamai had been set to retire that same day, but has stayed on to help manage the crisis.
However, Hahn seemed reluctant to cede the board’s authority in at least one case, questioning a decision to hire an outside consultant to help with the pilot program for seniors.
Phil Ansell, who leads the county’s Homeless Initiative, said that the team had reached out to professor Dennis Culhane, a leading researcher on homelessness, to assist. Culhane was one of the authors of a 2019 report on homelessness and aging focused on Los Angeles, New York and Boston that Ansell called groundbreaking.
“His expertise would be extremely helpful,” Ansell said. “I can assure you that engaging professor Culhane will expedite our ability to respond.”
Hahn said she wasn’t convinced.
“I don’t know who made this decision, if it was an RFP, whose money is paying for this,” Hahn said. “This is new for me, I don’t know how we make these decisions in hiring more consultants.”
Everyone seemed to agree that finding permanent housing for seniors is important work.
“A society’s greatness can be measured by how well it treats the young and the old,” said Arthur Ross, a street outreach case manager with the homeless services provider HOPICS. “With a sustainable plan, homeless seniors have an opportunity to rise like a phoenix out of the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The public health crisis has had an outsize impact on older residents and advocates argued that the goal should be to eliminate homelessness among the over-65 population.
“Older adults have had to dip into their retirement savings to address high housing costs, home and car maintenance, family matters and medical needs,” said Sandi Hamilton, director of the Willowbrook Senior Center and Empowerment Congress Senior Services Committee. “This public health crisis will further send many senior citizens into poverty and homelessness. Plans to address homelessness must continue as, indeed, housing is a human right for all individuals.”
The board asked the CEO to develop an initial plan in 30 days and a framework for implementation within 45 days.