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LA successfully sheltered homeless people in hotels. Could the approach work in Phoenix, too?

We have become more accustomed to seeing people experiencing homelessness in the Valley in recent years, as we’ve seen the number of people living on the street and in shelters jump. This year, for the first time since 2017, the number of unsheltered people finally went down — even just a little — when officials released the results of their annual Point in Time homelessness count last week

This year, there were 9,435 people experiencing homelessness in this year’s count, though the official metric is often considered an undercount. 

Efforts to solve the homelessness crisis in the Valley are ongoing, with more shelter beds added, and a lawsuit forcing city officials to clean up "The Zone” where hundreds of people were living in encampments in downtown Phoenix until this year. One solution that’s been especially controversial in some parts of the Valley has been to house people experiencing homelessness in hotels. 

But, in Los Angeles, a massive program funded by federal money during the pandemic did just that in order to save lives. Now, the results are in, and they show improved health care and long term solutions for tens of thousands of Californians. 

Doug Smith has been covering the program, dubbed Project Roomkey, for years and joined The Show's Lauren Gilger to talk more about it.

Full Conversation

DOUG SMITH: The CDC, early in the pandemic, issued an advisory concerning encampments, and in Los Angeles, we have lots of encampments all across the city, not just in Skid Row. There are encampments on virtually every neighborhood, and the CDC issued an advisory that encampments should not be disturbed during the pandemic because the disruptions would potentially hasten the spread of the virus. So the county of Los Angeles latched on to actually, a federal program. It was FEMA money that came through the state of California, and Gov. [Gavin] Newsom started Project Roomkey. The idea was that hotels and motels were basically empty during the pandemic, and they had no cash flow, and the state had money coming from FEMA, and they conceived the idea of using that money to lease empty hotels, motels, to get homeless people off the street and in basically in private rooms so that they could be isolated. The city and county both negotiated leases with hotel and motel owners, and they got a management structure set up. They brought in case managers from some of the major provider homeless providers in the county, and they they hired private nurses and they got 5,000 people indoors fairly quickly.

LAUREN GILGER: That's a lot of people. And this was even bigger statewide, right?

SMITH: Statewide, the at the peak they established 16,000 rooms, and they never filled them all at any one time. But they had as many as 13,000 housed at one time, and overall over the course of three years, basically they had 62,000 people indoors.

GILGER: Wow. Yeah, that's a lot of people. OK. So now the program has wound down. There are some other versions of it that have kind of come up since then that we'll talk about in a moment, but there is also some research that has come out about how impactful this program was, which is very interesting because the idea of, you know, taking homeless people off the street, giving them a place to live seems pretty simple, but it's usually pretty hard to do, except for under these pandemic circumstances. What did they find? How helpful was this for folks?

SMITH: Yeah so the goal — stated goal — of Project Roomkey was to save lives, and the idea was that if you had people who were exposed in encampments where if one person got exposed, it would quickly run through the encampment, to get those people into private rooms. And so the question was, did it did it work? There are conclusions. Two primary conclusions were one, that it did save lives, and the other was, which was, I think in some ways more important, that people who stayed longer had a much higher rate of getting into permanent housing, which, I mean, I spent a lot of time on the street with providers, with case managers and people and I go to shelters. And I'd been hearing from the streets that the traditional shelter model of 30 days to 60 days, with potential extension to 120 days, wasn't working as a transition to permanent housing, and that they were seeing that, that people needed a year or more to manage all the paperwork to get their documents, to get a voucher. Once they have a voucher, to find a room that that somebody will, at least to them, and in many cases, just to get reacquainted with, with the duties and the obligations and all the things you have to do to live independently. So this was this was a statistical, affirmation of what those people on the street were finding.

GILGER: Yeah. I mean, and there was more anecdotal data in there, too. I'd love you to talk about about, like, health care, about getting to know nurses, about finding out, you know, how if you're getting a shot for COVID, you're also, you know, they'll ask about other conditions and get treatment for that kind of thing, like services that stabilize people in this way.

SMITH: Sure. Unfortunately, one of the other, findings of the study was that there are huge data gaps. They weren't able to do a statistical study of the actual health outcomes. But what they did find is, they spoke to providers in 15 counties, personal interviews, and they they spoke to about 70, people who had been in, Roomkey hotels and almost all of the providers arranged for nurses to be on site and do, daily welfare checks, which were primarily aimed at, just doing a COVID test to see if they were infected.

But what they what they found is that these became daily conversations with people, and the people come in to these motels and hotels were generally very sick people because they were being targeted, for their age and their susceptibility, which meant compromised immune systems, chronic diseases, chronic heart, liver, kidney diseases. And so this was a population of people who were, very vulnerable and sick. And so they started having daily conversations with a nurse, and things would come out and the nurses would be able to make them appointments to go see a doctor. And some, some people knew they needed to go see a doctor, but they didn't have transportation. They couldn't keep their phone charged. They couldn't remember what day their appointment was. And so what they found is that as a byproduct of Project Roomkey, that a lot of very sick people were getting, attention about their health.

GILGER: Right, right. And so, yeah, because of this, they're getting this access they wouldn't have had otherwise. I wonder because we've seen nothing of this scale happen in Arizona, but we've seen, you know, hotels be converted into housing for people who are unhoused. We've seen hotels, you know, have been attempted to be converted into housing for people who are unhoused, and there's often pushback from communities, from sometimes from lawmakers who say, you know, we don't want this in this community for whatever reason, or there need to be, you know, more requirements about who's allowed in this kind of housing. Was there any pushback to this kind of program in LA?

SMITH: There was some, less than the anticipated. One city, there was a sort of popular result and the city council decided not to go ahead with the project. But in general, these projects were accepted, and in California, the Project Roomkey has transitioned into Project Homekey, where the state has pumped billions of dollars into purchasing hotels. And it's as if there was a transfer of the willingness of communities to do this. There's been very little pushback on the development of these hotels as permanent housing.

GILGER: Why do you think that is?

SMITH: I think it's certainly partly because you would almost have to drive around Los Angeles to understand how deeply the city has been affected by tent camps. They're all over. And I think there's a there's a very strong sense that this is something that has to be dealt with. The city is, is alien itself. And at the very local level, there are always people who object. I've covered many stories of of violent eruptions when the city wanted to put a homeless shelter somewhere. But in general, there's been no massive reaction against the conversion of hotels. A lot of these hotels, there weren't the greatest assets for the communities they were in anyway, and so I think the conversion of them into permanent supportive housing means there’s going to be usually security, or there's going to be somebody on the on site all day who is responsible and has access to resources, when something goes wrong.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.