Los Angeles has embarked on a massive and unprecedented effort to bring thousands of homeless people off the streets and into hotels to protect the most vulnerable residents as the coronavirus continues to spread.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that money from the federal government would help pay for at least 15,000 hotel rooms during the pandemic in a state with the country's largest homeless population.
But Los Angeles County, with the state's largest concentration of homeless people at some 60,000, has set its own goal of 15,000 rooms.
“We're going big in LA,” said Heidi Marston, interim director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “We based our goal on what the need is here."
Marston planned to outline the effort on Wednesday during the daily coronavirus briefing by county health officials.
Advocacy groups say the homeless population is particularly at risk during the crisis. Many transients already have health problems such as heart disease or diabetes, and live in conditions that do not allow for frequent hand washing and social distancing.
The hotel rooms set aside under the state's Project Roomkey are reserved for the “most vulnerable” of the county's homeless population, Marston said. These include people over 65 years old or those with underlying health conditions, and who do not have symptoms but are at high risk for hospitalization if they contract the virus.
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The first hotel opened April 3 in LA. A total of 1,340 beds at 15 sites across the county are expected to be ready by the end of this week.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday that the number of rooms needs to increase rapidly and he encouraged hotel operators to continue allowing the government to lease.
“But,” he warned, “if it requires a more aggressive stance, and requires some of the emergency powers I have to commandeer those rooms ... we need to get people into those thousands of rooms today.”
They'll be filled first by people from existing shelters that are eager to ease crowding during social distancing. Meanwhile, teams are going into encampments to find people who meet the criteria.
“People are really scared and they're trying to do whatever they can to protect themselves," Marston said Tuesday. “We see people who are excited to have a safe place to go.”
Outreach workers assist with every step of the process: checking for symptoms, gathering belongings, transporting people and checking them into hotel rooms.
Nurses are onsite to provide regular health checks. The temporary residents will have round-the-clock security, three meals a day and access to laundry facilities, officials said.
County officials are not disclosing names of hotels being opened to discourage uninvited people. They'll be spread out across LA and in the Antelope Valley, northeast of downtown.
Project Roomkey is aiding a three-pronged LA County effort to get people indoors and safely distanced from one another. The county is also setting up medical sheltering sites with quarantine and isolation rooms for people who have tested positive for COVID-19, show symptoms while awaiting test results, or who have been exposed to the virus.
In addition, temporary shelters have been set up at city and county parks and recreation centers, with beds placed at the recommended distance of at least 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart.
The estimated cost to secure 15,000 hotel rooms and staff the facilities for three months is about $195 million, said Phil Ansell, director of the county’s Homeless Initiative. Of that, $118.5 million will pay for the leases and the balance will cover operations, he said Tuesday.
Under the agreement announced by Newsom, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for 75% of the leasing cost. The state is kicking in $800 million in emergency funds to counties.
Newsom said as of Tuesday, more than 7,640 rooms had been secured across the state and local officials were working to bring people in “on a daily basis, on an hourly basis.”
The governor called the effort unprecedented.
"There’s not a state in America that’s even put a plan together to get 15,000 rooms. There’s not a state that’s gotten the support of FEMA to reimburse 75% of that. And I’m very proud of those efforts,” Newsom said.
San Diego County, with about 8,000 homeless, has secured 2,000 rooms and is prepared to get more if needed, officials said.
San Francisco, with a similar number of homeless people, has leased 945 rooms in eight hotels to house both the homeless and those unable to safely self-quarantine at home.
California on Tuesday had more than 17,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 500 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. At least a dozen homeless people have tested positive.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and other respiratory problems that can lead to death.