COMPTON — Projects Homekey and Roomkey were part of a statewide effort launched by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which began in March 2020 with a goal of providing temporary housing for 15,000 people within the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority’s network who were 65 or older or had chronic health conditions such as heart or respiratory illness.
These individuals were identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s as those most vulnerable to hospitalization or death from COVID-19.
Project Homekey was funded by $600 million from the state, with $108 million going to Los Angeles County to acquire and renovate properties and convert the units into permanent supportive housing. Project Roomkey would provide placement of individuals into the properties.
The county Board of Supervisors spent $106 million to purchase 10 properties in primarily working-class cities, which don’t have significantly high numbers of homeless, as opposed to creating the housing where the homeless are more heavily located.
Downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood area have seen significant increases to their homeless population. However, hotels in these areas, specifically those that received financial assistance and/or are located on land formerly owned by either the city or the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, did not participate in the program citing concerns about the impact housing the homeless would have on their “brand.”
In the county’s 4th District, represented by Supervisor Janice Hahn, more than half of the Homekey sites are located in Hacienda Heights, Harbor City, Long Beach, Norwalk and Whittier, despite 2020 Homeless Count numbers showing only 3,207 homeless in those cities.
The homeless population is also exploding in the county’s 2nd District, where Supervisor Holly Mitchell offers a different perspective.
“The Second Supervisorial District accounts for the highest rates of unhoused residents,” Mitchell said. “To give you some perspective, Black women only account for 8% of L.A. County’s population yet we are 20% of L.A. County’s homeless population and addressing this crisis is a top priority for me.”
The county spent $22.5 million on two properties in the city of Compton where the 2020 homeless count shows 652 unhoused residents.
One of the properties is located on Long Beach Boulevard, which has a long history of being a haven for prostitution. The other is located off the Artesia (91) Freeway next door to a Starbucks.
Residents are rightfully concerned about safety, as the city has recorded 25 murders in the first 21 days of this year. There is growing concern about the health and safety of the homeless living on non-working train tracks that run through the city.
“Lower income communities shouldn’t take on the whole responsibility of the homeless situation,” said Irene Perez, a longtime Compton resident. “Cities with higher income levels always succeed to push shelters and/or resources to not be allowed in their communities.”
According to Compton Assistant City Manager Michael Antwine, the county is a year away from actually moving people into the properties.
Compton Councilwoman Emma Sharif asked for an explanation on the difference between Project Roomkey and Homekey.
“The major difference is the tenancy of the property,” Antwine said. “Homekey is long-term housing for individuals, and Roomkey is interim housing for families.”
Sharif also wanted assurances that homeless Compton residents would receive priority in the selection process, but Antwine cautioned that the county would work with the city but there were no guarantees that local residents would receive priority.
Project Roomkey fell below expectations when less than a third of the individuals were housed. That was due in part to caseworkers being overloaded with double the clients they needed to serve.
A huge issue that isn’t being followed closely is participants abandoning the program.
The city of Norwalk’s homeless population was under control, with an early 2020 homeless count recording 168 unhoused residents. The program abandonment is higher than average and has exacerbated the problem, with 350 exiting and no longer accounted for. Crime also is rising in this city, as it is in Compton.
In Norwalk, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has responded to a total of 2,400 calls for service, resulting in a cost of $140,600 to taxpayers. In November, theft from vehicles increased in Cerritos and Norwalk, up 26% and 29% respectively, over the same time period the previous year.
According to the state, the abandonment rate increased from 16% to 50% of the clients being served in the program and 40% are still in a hotel room but could face eviction.
Longtime critics of permanent supportive housing attribute cost as a predominant factor, that funds are better spent purchasing apartment buildings over motels.
“Motels are well-suited for transitional housing, and they can be had for around $100,000 a unit. But when the upgrades for permanent supportive housing happen, that’s when the county will experience diminishing returns,” said Joseph Mailander.
“The upgrades are always costly and the siting of such permanent housing on commercial strips tends to blight the strips further. When the site flips the switch to permanent, with all its extra construction, extra staff, and extra stakeholders trying to profit off of our most troubled class, that’s where the taxpayer really gets soaked, and the community can suffer.
“And some of these permanent places are like supermax complexes, which on a commercial strip can be dispiriting for a community.”
Many of the cities where the Project Homekey funds have been spent to house the homeless are seeing an uptick in crime, which is a major concern for local stakeholders.
“It would be much more cost effective, and better for communities, to restrict permanent sites to old apartment buildings that reside right next to commercial strips,” Mailander said. “They can wall themselves off and they’d be cheaper.
An apartment complex blends in with other complexes. And it’s even better socially for the complex to straddle the area between commercial and residential. Most permanent supportive housing is a racket. But certain kinds in certain spaces can be made to work for all,” he added.
Supervisor Mitchell cautioned that solving the homeless problem isn’t an easy fix due to the multitude of reasons why a person becomes unhoused: leaving an abusive relationship, not being able to pay medical bills, battling a substance addiction and everything in between including a lack of affordable housing.
“Our solutions must account for the real-life challenges our residents are facing and be adaptable to serve people at different stages of this crisis,” Mitchell said. “Project Room Key is just one example for providing immediate housing. It is not the full answer, but it does serve a valuable role in utilizing existing temporary housing infrastructures (i.e. motels and hotels) to get as many people as possible off the streets.”
2 Urban Girls is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the Compton and Inglewood area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.