Ever since Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey started in 2020 as a way to help the homeless stay off the street by utilizing motel and hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has undergone big changes. It went from a program born out of necessity to keep vulnerable people from dying, to a boondoggle of a program which cities across the state use to put homeless when they take down their encampments.
While even some of the harshest critics admitted that it was needed early on in the pandemic when nobody knew how bad COVID was ultimately going to be, the program quickly became a way for cities to buy up or rent out less-than-quality motels for millions of dollars and house homeless people without giving regard to what’s best for them.
In a press release on Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state had given a total of $2.753 billion to create 12,676 units for the homeless since 2020.
But, while lawmakers and locals are often heard either being for or against it, the people it is supposed to be helping, the homeless, are left out of the equation. With the help of some homeless agency workers, the Globe talked with several homeless people who either are or were housed by Project Roomkey about what it was really like.
“Our tents were nicer than those places they stuck us,” explained Trevor, a homeless man in LA who stayed in Project Roomkey housing in the city in 2020 and 2021. “We weren’t expecting a Holiday Inn or anything, but we wanted better than —-hole. We didn’t get that. The first one I got had bedbugs, so several of us had to be moved. The next one was better, but the door didn’t exactly fit the door frame so a sliver of light showed through and the rooms’ temperature often met the outside temperature. Then when I went back in 2021 to one of those places, the person running it did daily checks of the room. Not housekeeping, but just looking around feigning some reason to see if we destroyed the place. I got so fed up with that that I left after only a few months.”
“The big reason why me and other people kept leaving wasn’t because of the quality so much as the rules. It made it impossible for a lot of us to get jobs. There’s a lot of horror stories here.”
Bad room conditions, curfew issues abound
Another homeless person, John C., added, “Don’t get me started on that. We were sold on the idea that we were to be given hotel rooms that would function like kitchen-less apartments. As someone who had been living on the street since 2015, that sounded great. I was working a night shift at a convenience store at the time, and I was close to getting a real apartment of my own. Project Roomkey dashed all of that.”
“First of all, they really don’t care where you need to be, and where they put me in a motels/" 1376 target="_blank">motel was even farther away from my work. Work, which by the way, I wasn’t allowed to go to anymore because it meant giving up my job because of the curfew. We really thought they would care about us, but nope. Several of us actively working to get out of our position either had to quit our jobs to get this housing or quit the housing to keep our jobs. There will be people in that Project who will say that never happened, but it absolutely did. They didn’t go around saying “Hey, quit your job or we throw you out,” but they didn’t need to.”
Trevor added, “The Project makes it harder to get out of homelessness. There’s so many restrictions placed on you. With the shelters, you just can’t leave at night and you need to leave early in the morning. We all know the deal there. Or for living in tents. We know we will get roused by the cops every once in a while. You expect it. We thought this would be different and that they actually help us succeed, but that’s not what happened.”
Gabrielle, who rose up out of homelessness last year, specifically said that it took getting out of Project Roomkey to get out of her chronic homelessness. “I was at all these terrible places like rundown spots or Days Inn’s where you felt so unsafe at night that some us propped the doors at night. Shelters, you know, we sleep in bunks, but there are always people watching. There, they just stuck us and hoped for the best.”
“Staying at the Motels was hard because it was often at inconvenient locations. I actually got a job in Long Beach while staying at one and had to go back to living in my tent because they refused to give me a closer room to my work and wouldn’t give me leeway on the curfew. I was in motels/" 1376 target="_blank">motel rooms, I’m guessing ten months with no improvement in my life. Once out, I had a job and eventually got an apartment within 4 months. It’s not the greatest place in the world, but now I can come and go as I please and I don’t have to worry about a lot of stuff I did with the motels.”
Trevor said, “We need statistics about this. Real statistics about what the rate is for transitioning people out of homelessness from these places. Because that’s the goal with shelters and everything, right? Or that it should be. Getting out of homelessness is not easy, and one wrong move and you’re back in the cycle and back at square one. All they do is get us off the streets for a bit with this Project it seems. And they spent billions on it? It’s crazy.”
“They spend all that money on getting us into these motels, but then don’t follow through on additional help, or sabotage what we had going, then act surprised when we’re back on the street. It’s crazy.”
More state money is expected to go into Project Roomkey in the coming months.
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