LOS ANGELES (AP) – When homeless social workers first visited her encampment under a Los Angeles highway overpass last fall, Veronica Perez was skeptical of their offer of not only a bed, but of an apartment furnished with meals, advice and the promise of some stability in his life.
“They said they had accommodation for me, but it just didn’t feel real,” Perez said. “When you are homeless you become suspicious and you don’t trust people. ”
Perez, 57, has been sleeping in cars or tents all over Southern California since she lost her job in a warehouse three years ago and couldn’t pay her rent.
The second time the outreach team came to the camp under Interstate 405, Perez decided she was ready to take a chance and make a change.
She accepted the offer and made her home in one of 6,000 new units built statewide in the past year as part of the Homekey project. The program launched in June 2020 reallocates vacant unused hotels, motels and other unused properties into permanent supportive housing.
Homekey is the keystone of Governor Gavin Newsom’s $ 12 billion plan to tackle homelessness in the country’s most populous state. California has an estimated 161,000 homeless people, more than a quarter of the national total of 580,000, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Newsom signed the fundraising bill on July 19, calling it “the largest single investment to provide support to the most vulnerable in American history.”
Newsom’s office said $ 800 million – most of the federal coronavirus aid, relief and economic security law money – was spent on Homekey in 2020 to provide shelter for 8 200 people. Now, the administration plans to go even further: California will spend $ 5.8 billion in state and federal funds over two years to expand the program and create about 42,000 housing units.
“If you look at last year as a proof of concept, you can look at this year as a scaling up of that strategy and make it a centerpiece of California’s approach to housing the homeless,” said Jason Elliott, Newsom Senior Advisor.
Newsom has made the fight against homelessness one of its top priorities. Now that the governor faces a recall election, Republican candidates have released their own plans to tackle the crisis. John Cox wants to demand that homeless people receive any necessary treatment for drug addiction or mental illness before they can get housing. Kevin Faulconer wants to build more shelters to facilitate the cleaning of the camps.
It’s not just Republicans who are pissed off. The predominantly progressive Los Angeles City Council passed a controversial anti-camping measure this month to end homeless settlements.
Other states are also grappling with the escalating crisis. This summer, New York City launched an aggressive campaign to remove settlements from Manhattan, and Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to move more than 8,000 people from hotels where they were placed at the start of the pandemic to shelters.
And in the state of Washington, the people of Seattle will vote on a measure which would oblige the mayor to take measures to combat the problem, in particular by creating 2,000 places of lodging or housing within a year.
In California, Homekey is an outgrowth of Project Roomkey, a temporary effort during the coronavirus outbreak to find shelter in hotels, which Elliot says has provided beds for 42,000 homeless people aged 65 and over or over. other people susceptible to COVID-19. It was extended until June 2022.
Under Homekey, the state purchases properties, covers all construction and conversion costs, and then hands them over to cities or counties that contract with local service providers.
The state’s effort is to be applauded but amounts to a “drop in the bucket,” said Eve Garrow, analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“It is substantial, but it is far from sufficient to meet the needs of all those currently displaced from their homes,” she said.
A Homekey site at a hotel in the small town of Milpitas in Silicon Valley has encountered some local opposition, triggering a lawsuit accusing those responsible for moving the project forward without public hearings.
“We say, you have to ask us for permission before you spend our tax dollars and build in our city,” said Suraj Viswanathan, member of the Voices Of Milipitas group. The dispute has been settled, with the group providing regular security patrols around the hotel area and semi-annual meetings.
The former hotel that Perez now calls his home is run by nonprofit The People Concern, which operates three properties in LA County with a total of 162 units. All three are approaching capacity.
CEO John Maceri said the state has set up local governments to be successful, but it will take a combined effort from politicians and service providers to support the program. He estimates the conversion costs will be well below $ 550,000 per unit, the going rate for building from scratch. It’s also much faster than building new units, and speed is important in a crisis.
“The goal should always be to provide permanent housing solutions faster and cheaper,” Maceri said.
In his new home in downtown Los Angeles, Perez relishes his privacy, enjoys the three meals provided daily, and appreciates being allowed to bring his cat. She takes a weekly painting class.
“They told us, make yourself at home. And I do, ”she said. Staff have helped her apply for a new social security card and will help her find a job when she is ready.
Perez was diagnosed with PTSD after his years on the streets and receives counseling on the spot. Other people with more serious mental health or addiction problems also receive the treatment they need.
The goal is to ensure that even the “hardest to house” people get inside, said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California at San Francisco. To that end, Kushel said Homekey achieves the most important part: providing permanent supportive housing, not temporary shelter.
“Some people need services that come with this housing, and some don’t. But what is really essential is that without housing services don’t work, ”she said.
Eventually, Perez will receive housing vouchers that will allow him to rent a subsidized apartment.
However, it’s unclear how long these vouchers could last, raising concerns among advocates for long-term success in a state with sky-high housing costs.
A new database shows that nearly 250,000 people sought housing services in 2020. About 117,000 of them are still waiting for help.
If California’s goals sound ambitious, Elliott said, it’s because they are: “Anything that isn’t ending homelessness means we’re aiming too low. “
This version has been updated to correct, in the summary, that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend $ 5.8 billion over two years to expand the Homekey program.