With Covid surging, program to house homeless in hotels gets extension

State’s Project Roomkey gets FEMA funding guaranteed

Gov. Gavin Newsom (Getty, iStock)
Gov. Gavin Newsom (Getty, iStock)

California’s program to temporarily house the homeless in hotels — which had been winding down — is getting extended as coronavirus cases surge statewide.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will continue to reimburse California’s “Project Roomkey” throughout the national declaration of emergency, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week. FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of the cost through its disaster relief fund, with the state paying the rest.

Project Roomkey has provided temporary housing to 23,000 at-risk California homeless — including thousands in Los Angeles —and those with pre-existing illnesses. At the same time, the program has provided a financial boost to hotels that have been battered by the pandemic. As of Dec. 21, there were 18 Project Roomkey hotel sites in L.A. County occupied by 2,380 people, according to a county spokesperson.

But the program’s coordination has not always been smooth between federal and state agencies, and counties, local governments and nonprofit service providers. In one instance, a hotel in Downtown L.A. was receiving Project Roomkey funding despite its owner, Shenzhen New World Group, having been implicated in an elaborate pay-to-play scandal involving former L.A. City Council member Jose Huizar. Shenzhen New World and its chairman, Wei Huang, were indicted on Nov. 30 on racketeering charges.

State officials previously announced Project Roomkey was getting phased out, anticipating federal funds drying up, and as resources shifted to buying hotels that would serve as homeless shelters.

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The Newsom administration, though, began changing in mid-November, announcing $62 million in emergency funding to Project Roomkey, one of several measures the state put forward as daily Covid cases began to soar and haven’t slowed down.

Now, the assurance of FEMA money “takes the uncertainty out of the [Project Roomkey] program,” said Russ Heimerich, of the state Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

An L.A. County spokesperson said the county will continue to operate Project Roomkey at least through April, though that could be extended “based on the circumstances, which include the availability of FEMA funding.”

Despite the renewal, some aid groups contracted to provide health care and meal services at Project Roomkey hotels — including the Salvation Army — are moving on. The Salvation Army said it is now focused on coordinating its efforts for a different program: “Project Homekey” In that program, the state uses federal CARES Act money to buy hotels for the homeless.