Should vacant Los Angeles hotels house the homeless? Voters will decide.

Los Angeles

On an average night in Los Angeles County, more than 60,000 people are homeless. At the same time, there are more than 20,000 vacant hotel rooms. In 2024, residents will have the right to vote: should these rooms be offered to the homeless?

“It’s crazy. It won’t solve the problem,” says Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, which represents hotels and other businesses in the city’s north end. He fears that housing homeless people in hotels deters people from visiting Los Angeles.

“I wouldn’t want my kids to be around people I’m not sure about. I wouldn’t want to be in an elevator with someone who is clearly having a nervous breakdown,” he says. “The idea that you can mix homeless people with normal paying guests just doesn’t work.”

The ordinance was brought forward by Unite Here Local 11 – the union that represents most hospitality workers in the city. Now that they have collected enough signatures, whether to house the homeless in hotels will be on the ballot in March 2024.

“We in no way believe this will solve the homelessness crisis. But do hotels have a role to play… of course they do,” says Union Co-Chair Kurt Petersen.

If voters give the go-ahead, every hotel in the city — from suburban Super 8 motels to glitzy inns like the legendary Biltmore — will have to flag vacancies and accommodate homeless guests who have a city voucher. Hotels would be paid market rates for rooms. The measure would also have implications for developers, who would have to replace any demolished accommodation to make way for new hotels.

“They don’t seem to understand who the homeless are,” Petersen says of opponents of the hospitality industry. “We’re talking about seniors, students, workers – that’s who the voucher scheme would benefit the most.”

How to deal with the city’s worsening housing and homelessness crises are key elements in every campaign for local political office. In polls, more than half of Los Angeles voters say tackling homelessness is their top concern. The county’s homeless services agency has an annual budget of more than $800 million, which is spent on everything from tallies to counseling, shelters to permanent housing.

Yet the homeless population continues to grow; Dilapidated encampments dot the streets and parks of Los Angeles.

In early 2020, the city saw a 16.1% increase in homelessness compared to the previous year. The agency said at the time that despite the expansion of homeless services, “economic conditions and (the) legacy of systemic racism” continued to push more people into homelessness. In 2022, the number of homeless older people in particular is on the rise, the agency said.

Homelessness has increased in Los Angeles in recent years, according to the homeless services agency.

The idea to use vacant hotel rooms came from Project RoomKey – a federally funded pandemic-era program that housed more than 10,000 homeless people in more than 30 hotels that turned up. volunteered to participate, says Petersen.

“It’s common sense,” according to Petersen. “It is already happening, it is happening more during the pandemic. It must continue. »

About a quarter of RoomKey participants eventually moved into permanent housing. But the project is coming to an end.

Shawn Bigdeli, 40, was homeless after losing his job. He’s been living at the LA Grand Hotel since March thanks to RoomKey. “It’s a blessing. It’s a big room,” he told CNN.

Shawn Bigdeli, recipient of the Roomkey project.

Bigdeli will have to move by the end of next month – but he does not agree to make it compulsory to accommodate the homeless in every hotel.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “You know, there are a lot of people with untreated mental disorders and some people are damaging these mediocre buildings.”

According a 2020 report from the homeless services agency, more than 14,000 homeless people in the county have serious mental illnesses and more than 15,000 struggle with substance abuse issues.

Manoj Patel, a manager at Motel 6 in eastern LA County, told CNN he once faced a $4,000 repair bill after a homeless guest ransacked his room .

“The bathroom was completely damaged,” Patel said. “I guess she threw something, pulled out the 43-inch HDTV. And then she felt voices or demons coming out of the room or something. She marked all the walls. The curtains, she burned. Thank God there was no fire.

Patel continues to rent rooms to homeless people vetted and paid for by a local church, but he also opposes making it mandatory.

Manoj Patel is the manager of a Motel 6 in Azuza, California.

“We’re barely surviving,” he said, after the pandemic and high gas prices hampered its rebound. “Number two: we have to think about the safety of our staff. And number three, we are not professionally or otherwise equipped with any of the support mechanisms that the homeless guest would need.

If voters approve the proposed measure, the city council will have to decide how to fund it – and what services, like advice and permanent housing assistance, to provide in addition to a free room for the night.

“We all want to help the homeless, but we don’t just want to put a band-aid on it,” says Patel. “You are trying to solve a problem and create an even bigger problem. And in the process, you’re actually, I think, taking the entire hospitality industry and devastating it.

Like Waldman, Patel fears the move will scare away tourists. “Honestly, would you check into a hotel knowing that your lucky neighbor to the left or right is homeless?” he said.

The safety of other guests and staff was cited by many hotel managers and industry representatives CNN spoke to as a reason not to move homeless people into hotels.

But some employees called it a hypocritical response.

“It’s hypocrisy on the part of hotels because during Covid they didn’t care about housekeepers,” Liliana Hernandez, housekeeper and member of the Unite Here union, told CNN.

Liliana Hernandez, a cleaner in Los Angeles, says she's been out of work for 18 months during the pandemic.

Hernandez, who has been out of work for 18 months during the pandemic, said she supports the bill because it would increase her job security and potentially increase the stock of affordable housing for her and her co-workers.

Some, she says, now live as far away as Bakersfield, about 180 miles north of the city. “They have to drive three hours to come to work,” she said. “And three hours home afterwards.”

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, is against the measure.

The union says the motivation behind this bill is to alleviate the housing crisis for its members and the city. Opponents questioned those motives, pointing out that the union could, at any time, withdraw the bill.

“They want to use it as a bargaining tactic,” Waldman of the trade association says of the union. “I also know that unions are reaching out to hotels to tell them they will withdraw the ballot measure if more hotels sign union contracts.”

A union representative told CNN that was untrue.

“We try to hold them accountable, of course,” said Petersen, the union’s co-chairman, when asked about the criticism. “We want hotels to be responsible to the community.”