LOS ANGELES — Gary Heth, who is blind, finally had a roof over his head after decades of life on the streets. And a nice roof too.
Heth has been staying for 19 months at what was once one of downtown’s top addresses, the LA Grand Hotel, as part of the Roomkey project, which housed the unsheltered with a federal grant on behalf of public safety. during the pandemic.
As of November 18, there were 286.
Now, with concern over COVID-19 waning, authorities intend to close the door to remaining Project Roomkey participants at the LA Grand Hotel and one other hotel by February. It’s a bitter reality to contemplate as winter approaches and the festive season is upon us.
Heth, a Yankton Sioux from the Dakotas who also goes by the name Yellow Feather, was appalled by the news.
“These people don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “They can’t get a homeless person off the streets, put them in a nice place to live and get them out months later.”
The end of the Roomkey project underscores the difficulties that cities with greater homelessness issues have in dealing with homeless people when there is a lack of permanent housing for them. With programs coming and going, people are forced to keep moving if they want to avoid living on the streets. Homelessness has become one of the biggest issues facing Los Angeles County, with more than 69,000 people in its latest count, which includes people staying in shelters.
In contrast, Maricopa County in Arizona reported more than 9,000, including those in shelters.
The Roomkey project has provided shelter for more than 10,000 people in California over the past two years using hotels, many of which had seen guest numbers plummet as people stayed home during the pandemic. Safe and clean rooms provided access to meals, medical checkups and adequate security.
At one point, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority secured over 4,000 rooms in 37 hotels. And while that ends the Roomkey project, the agency said it offers housing subsidies or vouchers to those who remain in the program.
The beginning of the end for Roomkey came in August, when the city council authorized $2.9 million to begin liquidation. This was in addition to the $2.5 million already approved to move some people into residential accommodation.
In September, homeless advocates called on Los Angeles to buy the 13-story LA Grand Hotel and turn it into permanent housing. The city has not officially responded.
Heth, spending time last month in a weathered folding chair under a bridge near the hotel, said he was looking for a place to live when he was forced to leave the LA Grand Hotel, but was out of price.
“It’s a lot of money here to rent accommodation and I have no money,” he said, adding that he had been without stable accommodation for 29 of his 57 years.
Sonja Verdugo, a former Roomkey resident at the LA Grand Hotel, said when she and others received eviction notices, everyone was frantic and didn’t know what to do. They were left to fend for themselves.
“Of course we were asking questions, and all the people there who were in charge of running the place were really, really rude and kind of shut everyone down,” Verdugo said. “Everyone was mad.”
She was lucky in finding a landlord who would accept her voucher for government-subsidized Section 8 housing. The City of Los Angeles Housing Authority said the process could take up to 60 days, leaving some owners reluctant to participate. She said other residents of the LA Grand Hotel were promised permanent accommodation, but were then directed to less desirable alternatives.
“They are forced to go to a shelter. I don’t understand,” Verdugo said.
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