As Project Roomkey ends at Van Nuys hotel, many homeless left with uncertainty about their future

As darkening rainclouds gathered overhead, Robert Hayden scrambled to move his car out of the parking lot of the Airtel Plaza Hotel, his home in recent months as a participant in Project Roomkey, a pandemic-spurred program that tapped hotel rooms around Los Angeles County to shelter the homeless amid the COVID pandemic.

“They’re just hurrying people out,” said Hayden, 64, hustling to stay ahead of a tow truck parked nearby.

“I’m a Valley girl,” said Brianna Simnowski, who was worried about being send to a hotel out of the area and potentially ending up homeless in an unfamiliar place. “I can’t even fathom going and being homeless somewhere where I’m not familiar with. I can’t, I won’t.”

Simnowski, 56, said she was offered a space at a congregate women’s shelter in Sylmar, but did not want to be squeezed into a cubicle with dozens of other people, fearing exposure to COVID.

After being urged to take a placement in Long Beach, Donna Tipton didn’t know what she would do. “They’re making me move out right now, so I gotta gather up all my stuff as fast as possible,” Tipton said. “I’m uncomfortable going there. I mean, I might not.”

As officials worked to empty out the 267-room hotel near the Van Nuys Airport, several residents described a frenzied atmosphere in recent weeks — intensifying during the past week. Some said they felt pressured and were given vague or inconsistent information about where and why they would be relocated. Some said they’d rather return to the street than accept temporary shelter at hotel rooms out of the area or in a congregate shelter.

Program organizers said, however, they were doing their best to find shelter for the Airtel residents, but they were also frustrated by their limited options. They had very few nearby accommodations similar to the Airtel, with individual rooms, and were up against the larger affordable housing shortage as well. Service providers and a spokesman for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said, however, that residents were being treated respectfully amid the shutdown.

“Everybody has been offered a viable, indoor, safe, appropriate housing option, and some are choosing not to take it,” said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, President of LA Family Housing, which provides supportive and housing services to the Project Roomkey residents, in an interview Friday.

A spokesman for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said only 3% of Project Roomkey participants “have exited to an unsheltered location” and they were working to keep track of them, to offer places to stay as more became available.

Klasky-Gamer said anyone who may have returned to living on the street was likely provided options for places to go, but left of their own accord. “The people that you saw, that chose to say, ‘I’m going to go, and pitch a tent across the street,’ that’s out of defiance because they don’t want the option they were given,” she said. “But they were given an option.”

A recent outbreak of COVID-19 also prompted some of the move-outs, program operators said, with some residents told by staff they had tested positive and would need to quickly pack up and leave for another hotel to quarantine, per county rules.

Klasky-Gamer said she didn’t expect the arrangement at the Airtel to end this way.

“From Day One, we said, ‘(we’ve) got to have 700 places for them to go, whenever this whole thing ends,’” she said. “Certainly not in my wildest dreams, I never thought we’d be 12 months later, trying to find places for people to go.”

“Sadly, we have a housing crisis in Los Angeles. We don’t have enough units for everybody to go into, certainly not enough units for everybody to have their own room,” she said. “And I’m sad about that,” she said. “I also appreciate that going from 10 months of having your own room and your own bathroom is a luxury that is really hard to leave.”

She added: “But it doesn’t mean that we can find you the exact same setup, because that just doesn’t exist.”

More than a week ago, residents were told that if they turned down placements, they had to check out by Jan. 31, in a letter from LA Family Housing, titled “Re: Declining an Interim Housing Placement,” posted to the doors of rooms of at the Airtel. “Please understand that these placement options are limited,” it said.

As of Saturday, following a call by community activists responding to the letter, the ultimatum no longer appeared to be in place, and an extension of the program at Airtel was being negotiated.

Klasky-Gamer also said that the initial Jan. 31 checkout time, which was in place when the program was to close Feb. 3, was set because “our residents do better with deadlines.”

She said in an email Saturday that “we have verbally shared with residents that the closure has been delayed.” As of press time, it was unclear if a tentative extension had been agreed upon between the county and the hotel operator and how long it would last.

In response to complaints about the pressure some residents said they faced, Klasky-Gamer said that “LA Family Housing staff work tirelessly on behalf of homeless residents and we treat everyone with respect and dignity, and finding housing for the residents of Airtel is no exception.”

“In an untenable situation under COVID, we fulfilled our commitment of finding housing for all residents so they have a safe place to live when Airtel closes,” she said. “In addition, LAFH staff went beyond our role as a services provider to advocate for an extension of the lease.”

A spokesman for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which works with LA Family Housing and the county to help run the Project Roomkey program, said in a statement Friday that it was their agency’s “top priority that all PRK (Project Roomkey) participants are offered safe and stable interim and permanent housing.”

“LAHSA, LAFH and the county all work together to find a desirable destination for each participant, and no one is transferred to a destination that does not work for them,” the statement said. “We stay in contact with those who exit to an unsheltered location as they still have a permanent housing subsidy that can be utilized when a unit becomes available.”

Meanwhile, it’s unclear exactly how many people remain at the Airtel. Public officials have kept details about the number of people living at specific Project Roomkey locations confidential.

Residents at the Airtel said there might be around 100 people still at the site, the largest of the Project Roomkey hotels still open in the San Fernando Valley, but there were many more living there at its peak. A county update that does not specify the name of the hotel, but lists a site that matches the description of the Airtel, says that just over 180 clients were still at there as of Friday. One of the two towers at the hotel that was occupied by Project Roomkey tenants had recently been emptied out, one former resident said.

Project Roomkey, aimed at temporarily sheltering people experiencing homelessness during the outbreak, is now being ramped down by the county. Funding is shifting to a new effort called Project Homekey, in which properties are being bought up to operate as permanent, rather than temporary, housing sites. The Airtel, however, is currently not transitioning into becoming a Homekey site, officials said.

In the San Fernando Valley, other Project Roomkey hotel sites have converted into permanent sites where residents have stayed on. But not enough have space to house the remaining Airtel residents.

Some public officials are looking at whether more housing could be created now that the Biden Administration last week said it would provide 100% reimbursement for emergency spending on non-congregate shelters — which could include paying for hotel rooms. But local agencies are also worried that they do not have enough funding to front the money while they wait for the federal dollars to come in.

Project Roomkey was initially billed as a way to allow unhoused people, considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, to shelter-in-place and quarantine. But many said they were swayed by a deeper assurance, that it would be a promising path to getting out of homelessness and into permanent housing.

It was that hope that spurred Hayden to enter the Roomkey program at the Airtel about eight months ago.

“That was the promise when we all came here, to make sure we were housed when we all left,” he said. “They told us from the beginning that we’re in there, and we will be housed, and we’ll be there until we get housed.”

Though new sites are being developed and opened for the unhoused to live in, it hasn’t happened quickly enough to keep pace with the demand. The county reported that in 2019, an estimated 75,000 people got some type of housing (many may have only been sheltered temporarily), but 82,000 people became homeless.

The pandemic prompted the cancellation of the 2021 homeless count, which will make it harder for officials to quantify greater hardships that may arise. Concurrently, projections by UCLA last May and more recently by California court officials, forecast a wave of pandemic-propelled evictions that may add to the ranks of the homeless.

Bobby Hayden becomes emotional after leaving the Airtel Plaza Hotel that he has called home for months, in Van Nuys, CA., Thursday, January 28, 2021. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

At the Airtel, Hayden said he was confused about his future.

Back on Wednesday he was told he tested positive for COVID-19, and would need to go to a quarantine site at the Willow Tree in Compton. He was later told that he could go to another quarantine site, at a closer hotel on Ventura Boulevard. Hayden didn’t go to either site. He was reluctant, he said, because he did not have any symptoms. He asked for documentation of his test results, but was refused, he said.

Klasky-Gamer said she could not provide individual documentation to residents, because their test results were presented on a single sheet, listing multiple names, which could not be shared because of privacy concerns.

Hayden, who said he’d previously been homeless for eight years, told the Daily News last week that he had been prepared to tough it out if he had to. “If I have to live on the street, then I’m going to have to do it, until my housing becomes available,” he said.

On Friday, however, he accepted an offer to move into a nearby hotel. A friend staying there reassured him about the lodgings, he said. Even though some people there had COVID-19, Hayden’s friend said, residents were diligent about staying separated in their own rooms.

Hayden grew emotional as he recalled making the decision to move into the Airtel, months ago. “After being out there for eight years,” he said, squeezing between his eyes to fight back tears, “it was kind of time to come in.”

Another former Airtel resident, 62-year-old Lewis Ashbrook, said he was back living in his truck with his cat, after he tested positive for COVID. He described a much less hectic move-out experience than some others, though.

Ashbrook was approved to quarantine at the Compton hotel, but wasn’t eager to leave the area. He said he usually spends six to eight hours a day collecting scrap metal to survive. “I have places to go in the Valley to do that, and to deliver it to, take it in. Out there (in Compton) it would be nothing. I would just sit, and do nothing. I wouldn’t know anything.”

Last Wednesday, Ashbrook said that he had gotten his belongings packed up, as instructed, and was set to go to the hotel in Compton to quarantine. But the staff didn’t get back to him until after dinner, when they informed him he could stay there that night.

The next morning, at breakfast, while Ashbrook got his temperature taken, he said the doctor looked at him and asked, “What are you still doing here? … You should have been outta here.”

Around 4 p.m., on Thursday, he was given the green light to leave for the Compton hotel. But a rainstorm had kicked in and he decided he “wasn’t gonna drive out in the weather with all that traffic. It would have taken me a couple hours to get out there, and not knowing where I’m going or anything, I just didn’t really feel comfortable.”

It didn’t rain on Friday, the second night, but it was “super cold,” Ashbrook said. He slept in his truck, which he parked in front of a food pantry in Chatsworth where he sometimes picks up sustenance to deliver to others.

He never made it to Compton, and he said he hasn’t heard from the staff at Project Roomkey about his stay at the hotel. “They haven’t called or anything to see if I made it.”

Ashbrook said when he initially heard about the Project Roomkey program, he felt it was “pretty cool, because they said they would help us to get back on your feet or whatever, get housing. It got extended, extended, and then nothing happened.”

“It got us off the street for a little bit,” he said. “I mean, a lot of people down there are right back on the street, which is crazy.”

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