Are Hotels the Solution to Homelessness?

A commonsense solution to the housing crisis has gained backers amid the pandemic—but can the political will remain?

France Hotel Homeless Coronavirus
Members of the French civil defense check on a homeless man locked down in a hotel, on April 8 in Nantes, on the 23rd day of a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

Dale lies dying on an island in the Los Angeles River. Beneath a haggard tent in a sandy encampment, a quarter-mile from a vegan takeout restaurant and several pricey coffee shops (all now shuttered) he struggles to rise from his bedroll. A tattooed, taciturn man in his early 60s, he has stage 4 leukemia and tells me that nine months ago a doctor gave him six months to live. It would sound hackneyed if it were not so obviously true. Dale’s eyes are red and veiny. He asks for soft food because his gums are too sore to eat properly. His body shudders with every forced breath.

I met Dale while volunteering with SELAH, a local homelessness outreach organization, and have come down to the river to bring him a pack of Pall Mall Red 100s and to tell him that there is no news on trying to get him into Project Roomkey, California’s much-publicized initiative to house high-risk homeless people in vacant hotel rooms during the COVID-19 crisis. The program was viewed as groundbreaking by governments around the world, neatly solving one problem—a pandemic-hit hotel sector—with another. The reality has been very different.

California was suffering from a homelessness epidemic long before the viral one arrived, with more than half of the United States’ unsheltered population living in the Golden State. Officially, Los Angeles County is credited with some 59,000 people living homeless within its borders, of which some 44,000 are unsheltered, but residents and experts alike believe that the actual number is much higher. Though homelessness has steadily increased in recent years, with 2019 seeing a terrifying 12 percent jump countywide, government solutions have, as a rule, never progressed beyond the lamentation phase. In 2016 Angelenos approved a referendum to allot more than $1.2 billion to build housing for people without homes, but these projects have been agonizingly slow to develop, hindered by community opposition and unconscionable cost overruns.

That’s why the announcement in early April of Project Roomkey felt so revolutionary. Unable to shelter in place, without sanitation facilities or often even access to clean water, the homeless population was at a critical risk during the pandemic. Conventional shelters, with their open floor plans, offered similarly perilous opportunities for the spread of the virus. The fear of mass deaths finally spurred the government into action, and with great fanfare Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to house 15,000 homeless Californians for as long as the crisis lasted. Perhaps inspired by California’s example, the United Kingdom proposed a similar initiative, promising to house rough sleepers throughout the country. Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and other cities around the developed world have offered similar pilot programs.

It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm. Housing homeless people in unused hotels is the kind of common-sense solution for which activists have long been advocating, providing critical shelter for the most desperate while simultaneously aiding a beleaguered hospitality industry. It was also an initiative that would have been fairly unthinkable before the pandemic, as the threat of the virus spurred government to an uncharacteristic urgency (New York had longed housed the homeless in hotels, but as a stopgap for insufficient shelter space). At long last, it seemed the authorities were making a sincere attempt to address a rapidly worsening crisis.

Unfortunately for Dale and the many thousands like him, there’s been a huge gulf between sincerity and effective action. Of the 15,000 beds Los Angeles County promised to make available, as of May 26 less than 2,400 are actually occupied. Project Roomkey has moved forward with agonizing lethargy as the most obviously suitable candidates struggle to find placement, even while government officials hurry to reopen the economy. The culprit is a predictable mélange of institutional incompetence, opposition from entrenched interests, and a general lack of commitment from civic leaders.

In part, Project Roomkey suffers from the complex web of bureaucracy used to implement its policies. Although theoretically a state-run initiative, the project is funded mostly by the federal government and executed by the counties, making for a bewildering array of institutions with some role in the process. There is no system of mass enrollment, and in practice candidates are still forced to work through the same desperately overstretched network of case workers as ever. To be entered into the program individuals are required to undergo an elaborate intake process, always difficult among a far-flung population often lacking cell phones and generally wary of authority, but now made all but impossible as most outreach workers have been called out of the field for fear of spreading the virus.

Hotels have been slow to offer their services, and most of the partner properties are smaller establishments. Despite an average occupancy rate of 20 percent, and after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds even before the pandemic as incentives to build in the city, larger hotels are leery of offering up rooms to the unhoused for insurance and safety reasons—although the program includes on-site security and case management, as well as guaranteeing compensation for any errant property damage. Neighbors have likewise objected to the image of people without homes living in luxury accommodations.

Critics insist that the issue is fundamentally one of political will. They point out that the mayor could, at any point, commandeer the unused hotel rooms and bypass the current process altogether, though this seems enormously unlikely. Even in these strange days, there is only so much elected officials are willing to do antagonize propertied interests in service of the unhoused, who rarely vote and don’t generally pay taxes.

It’s unclear whether the difficulties plaguing Project Roomkey represent a broader failure of the model or reflect the peculiarities of California’s circumstances—though early signs would suggest the former. The budget for a similar program is London has already been exhausted. Paris, like Los Angeles, has struggled to find accommodations for its unhoused population. Overlying all of this is the reality that even the most lavish budgets did not account for the ever-lengthening timeline of the pandemic. As we move from the theoretical clarity of a shelter-in-place order to whatever murkier reality will replace it, the voices calling the matter finished and pushing for a return to the status quo grow louder.

Except that the status quo has been changed irrevocably. The dire economic effects of COVID-19 will swell the number of people living unhoused, particularly in the United States, where as many as 78 percent of workers report living paycheck to paycheck and social services are strained where they are not altogether absent. In a year’s time we might see our homelessness numbers double, shantytowns metastasizing across great metropolises—Trumptowns, like the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Should this happen, the clamor for dramatic action such as Project Roomkey initially promised may well prove deafening.

In the meantime, Dale continues to wait. Many of the charities and food banks he relies upon have closed, and increased security restrictions around supermarkets have made it more difficult to acquire discarded foodstuffs, once a major source of sustenance. He was taken to the hospital several days ago for shortness of breath, but released the next morning. He accepts my small offerings and listens to my grim updates, but apart from that is cagey and quiet. I sense that he has grown tired of seeing me, of my anxious apologies and false promises. I cannot say I blame him.

Daniel Polansky, winner of the Prix Imaginales, is the author of the critically acclaimed Low Town trilogy and The Builders, which was a 2016 Hugo Award finalist.

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