Lessons from Project Roomkey

With homelessness expected to worsen as the pandemic continues, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl are seeking to learn from Project Roomkey, which has taken more than 4,000 people off the streets and into shelter over a span of just four months – an unprecedented feat.

Acting on their motion, the Board of Supervisors approved a study to determine, among other things, whether Roomkey had a positive impact on the lives of particularly vulnerable homeless individuals – those aged 65 or older, or with pre-existing conditions – who received temporary stays in hotel and motel rooms to protect them and the general public against the spread of COVID-19.

The study would also examine whether Roomkey resulted in net cost savings for government agencies that otherwise might have contended with added pressure on healthcare and criminal justice systems in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“It is important that we learn the lessons of Project Roomkey and determine whether such large-scale intervention should be duplicated or even ramped up, especially since COVID-19’s economic impact is exacerbating both our homelessness and housing affordability crises,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.  “The results of this study will create a foundation for long-term support of our homeless neighbors, particularly those who are seniors and/or have underlying health conditions.”

“Project Roomkey brought more than 4,000 of our most vulnerable homeless men and women indoors during the early months of the pandemic by marshaling unprecedented local, state and federal resources,” said Supervisor Kuehl. “Today’s action will help us better understand the success of Project Roomkey and how to build on this remarkable effort to rapidly rehouse people experiencing homelessness.”

Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl’s motion called for looking into the services that Roomkey clients received during their hotel stay, as well as 12 months before and 12 months afterwards, and then comparing their outcomes with those of homeless individuals who were eligible for Roomkey but did not or could not participate in it.

With Project Roomkey, Los Angeles County signed occupancy agreements with almost 40 hotels to provide safe “non-congregate” shelter to over 4,000 people since starting in April 2020.  The program focused on people experiencing homelessness who did not have symptoms but were at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority then worked in tandem with community-based nonprofits to oversee operations and services at each hotel. County health departments provided clinical support while County staff volunteering as Disaster Service Workers provided non-clinical support.

In May 2020, the Board unanimously approved a motion authored by Supervisors Keuhl and Ridley-Thomas to fund a Recovery Rehousing Plan to connect the Project Roomkey residents  to long-term housing and stable services. In other words, in addition to COVID-19 health protections, Roomkey is also providing a pathway to permanent housing to vulnerable residents during the pandemic.

Los Angeles County is also part of the effort to scale up the nonprofit organization PATH’s Measure H-funded Lease-Up program, which will recruit more landlords and property managers to rapidly house Project Roomkey residents.