LOS ANGELES (NewsNation) — The coronavirus pandemic, a surge in housing costs and an increase in unemployment left nearly 600,000 Americans unhoused in 2020, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It’s also caused an increase in empty and abandoned office buildings and hotels across the nation.
Now, California is making a major investment in the state’s homeless crisis, investing more than $694 million into the existing “Project Homekey” framework, which converts existing hotels, motels and office buildings into transient housing. The project will benefit 19 communities across California and create about 2,500 units of housing, Gov. Greg Newsom announced on Wednesday.
Los Angeles will inherit more than $277 million to create 960 housing units, and San Francisco will receive more than $73 million to create 221 housing units.
“It’s about the rebirth of a city. It’s about the rebirth of opportunity. It’s about the reinvestment of people’s lives here,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
City and state leaders said they are pleased with the project’s direction since it was created during the pandemic. In two years, nearly 13,000 homes were established for men, women and children fighting their way out of homelessness.
It’s an experiment that’s also been attempted in Austin, Texas and Seattle.
Other cities have tried programs buying up hotel and motel rooms on a short-term basis, but none have been on a scale as large as California’s. Few states have broad protections and state-mandated resources to get homeless citizens off the street.
At a local level, some cities have cold weather-related right to shelter policies — when the temperature drops below a certain point, they provide overnight shelter for homeless people. For example, those temperatures range from 40 degrees in South Carolina all the way down to an icy 13 degrees in Baltimore.
There are federal housing grant programs in place that all states have to abide by, but those only apply to specific populations like veterans or the disabled.
So what’s caused the need for Project Homekey in California?
A report from the San Francisco Chronicle found that in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, nearly 40 percent of the homeless population ended up on the streets because of eviction or a lost job. As of 2019, L.A. and San Francisco had five to six times as many unsheltered people as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or Dallas.
Advocates said it’s a good strategy because building more overnight shelters isn’t a long-term sustainable solution.
“Housing ends homelessness; housing first is the right approach. It just takes us to commit to that, and fund it at scale,” said Christopher Martin, the policy director of Housing California. “We should be building housing for everybody everywhere, and providing opportunities to people so that they can find a safe place. We all are part of the solution in that sense.”
Meanwhile, there are some issues with initiating a plan like this — hotels and motels are often centered in residential neighborhoods, and families fear it will attract an unwelcome crowd into their communities.
Then, there is the question of finding the manpower to operate these new buildings. Homeless advocates agree — you can’t just put homeless men and women into a building — you’ll need to find workers to watch out for their well-being and connect them to services while they search for their own long-term housing solution.