‘The opportunity to start over’: Homeless people get housing in L.A. County through Project Homekey

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In what was once a Motel 6 in Baldwin Park, 36-year-old Laura Morales found a home after three years on the streets.

She’s one of many homeless people in Los Angeles County who received a room of her own — with a private bathroom — through Project Homekey, a largely federally funded grant program started during the pandemic.

Project Homekey lets counties and cities buy hotels, motels, apartments and other buildings to house those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Morales says she never thought she’d be here.

“Sometimes life hits you in a very unexpected way,” she said. “Not all of us come from a slum background. I’m a surgical tech. … I lost my job, I lost my car, my place. Soon I couldn’t take care of my son, which is my biggest regret.”

Morales lost housing after relapsing into drug addiction, and she found herself living near a bike path on the L.A. River.

Wanting help but not knowing where to look, she found her luck turning around when an outreach worker spoke to her at the river — and she ended up at the motel in Baldwin Park.

The stability and services like counseling helped Morales turn her life around, she said. Now, she has reunited with her 14-year-old son and is planning a return to work.

Mostly using federal COVID-19 relief funds allocated to California, Project Homekey was announced last year, kick-starting a race for local officials to quickly acquire hotels. The funds had to be spent by the end of the year, and 94 sites with more than 6,000 rooms were purchased statewide by the deadline, according to the state.

Now, this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants to see $7 billion invested in buying new properties for Project Homekey.

Sites purchased through the program started taking in people in L.A. County earlier this year, with most locations serving as interim housing but with plans to be renovated into permanent housing with supportive services.

Nearly 8,300 people have been housed or were expected to be housed statewide in 2021 under Project Homekey, according to an April report on the program to state legislators.

The program builds on Project Roomkey, a temporary initiative meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus that helped bring seniors and other medically vulnerable people experiencing homelessness into leased hotel rooms.

So many agencies and sites are involved that it’s difficult to nail down a specific number for how many people are housed in rooms paid for by Project Homekey at a specific point in time.

This week, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said 1,107 people were living in rooms funded by Project Homekey in the area it serves, which includes the city of Los Angeles and most of the rest of L.A. County. An L.A. County website that features data and maps related to homelessness, meanwhile, identifies 34 Project Homekey sites countywide, with 2,121 units, as of March 15.

L.A. County itself bought 10 hotels and motels, including the Baldwin Park site. Of the county-owned 847 units, 620 were occupied by 790 people as of last week, according to L.A. County’s Homeless Initiative.

Those being housed by the county’s sites account for less than 1% of the 66,000 homeless people tallied countywide in January 2020. (This year’s count was skipped due to the pandemic, but experts expect the number to continue climbing into 2023.)

Officials said it costs more than $23,600 per year to operate and provide services at just one permanent supportive housing unit, and the county is still assessing options for paying for renovations. 

But even with the costs to renovate the motels and hotels into permanent housing, Project Homekey is being touted as being a quicker and less expensive solution than new construction from the ground up.

A 2019 audit by L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin found that more than 1,000 units of housing approved for funding through Proposition HHH — the $1.2 billion bond approved by city voters in 2016 — could cost more than $600,000 a unit.

And a report to state legislators compared an average cost of about $129,000 per Project Homekey “door” to a statewide range of $380,000 to $570,000 per newly built unit. The report called Homekey “extremely cost-effective and efficient.”

But at the same time, not everyone thinks Homekey provides an ideal solution.

University of Southern California professor Gary Dean Painter cautioned against relying on hotels and motels to house L.A.’s large homeless population — especially as the economy improves and tourism picks up.

“We don’t know the extent to which hotel and motel operators will be prepared to sell as they were during the pandemic,” the professor said. “We should have a plan B.”  

The Baldwin Park motel housing Morales cost $7.1 million to buy, and has 75 rooms. It’s now an interim shelter.

“People can stay here until they get their own permanent opportunity,” said Elisa McCormick, Baldwin Park Project Homekey director.

Bryant Griffin, a 59-year-old resident at the Baldwin Park motel, said he spent two years moving through shelters and living in his car before finding a room through Project Homekey.

A welder by trade, the father of two said a divorce left him with nowhere to live and not enough money to get his own place — all as he was recovering from a major organ transplant.

He was happy to find a place with his own bathroom after having to go to Hawthorne City Hall to clean up. He’s now working to get into trucking school.

“Going to get out of here, get on my feet, and give back like I’ve been given the opportunity to start over,” he said.

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