In an unprecedented undertaking prompted by the state of emergency over COVID-19, Los Angeles County and its public and private partners have helped about 1,700 homeless people to get off the streets and temporarily move into hotels and motels.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (center) outside a Project Roomkey hotel. He is joined by (L-R) two homeless people benefiting from the program, the hotel’s owner, and acting LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston. Photo by Aurelia Ventura/Board of Supervisors

As of May 4th, LA County’s Homeless Initiative has secured contracts for 2,711 hotel and motel rooms, 1,708 of which are now occupied by people aged 65 or older with underlying health conditions that made them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

“Project Roomkey is a win-win on multiple fronts, protecting vulnerable elderly residents, preserving the public health of the larger community, and providing income to hotel owners,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “Most importantly, it is a test of our values and our collective commitment to provide a roof over everyone’s head.”

A homeless couple currently staying in a Project Roomkey site. Photo by Aurelia Ventura/Board of Supervisors

Launched by Governor Gavin Newsom in early April, Project Roomkey is a first-in-the-nation initiative to repurpose vacant hotel and motel rooms for vulnerable, elderly homeless individuals and couples who have no symptoms but are at most risk of contracting COVID-19. The State is working with Counties and Cities across California and the costs will be reimbursable by FEMA since this initiative has been deemed a life-saving emergency mission.

Project Roomkey will not only protect high-risk individuals but to also prevent the spread of the deadly virus in communities and protect the capacity of the healthcare system. It gives people without a home the ability to stay indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

LA County is working with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) as well as experienced nonprofit partners to provide the people in Project Roomkey sites with wrap-around services and clinical support. This program is also a boon to cities and property owners, as hotels are facing the stark reality of plummeting vacancy rates during this crisis.

The hotel lobby of a Project Roomkey site. The program has enabled the staff to remain employed throughout the pandemic. Photo by Los Angeles County.

On April 14th,  Supervisor Ridley-Thomas put forward a motion that would take further action to implement a local Comprehensive Crisis Response strategy, and start planning the post-pandemic housing plan to ensure that everyone living in Project Roomkey sites have safe long-term housing destinations.

The motion also asked the County to start creating the framework to pilot a legal obligation for the public sector to provide housing for all older homeless adults, so that no one aged 65 or older will remain unsheltered.