By Matthew Kredell
Homelessness was a serious problem in Los Angeles and statewide long before COVID-19 came along.
But the pandemic has exacerbated the issue while also inspiring exciting policy developments that provide momentum and lessons going forward.
The USC Schwarzenegger Institute and USC Price Center for Social Innovation joined forces in October to hold a discussion titled “Unhoused: Addressing Homelessness During and After the Pandemic.”
The Center and Institute, both housed within the USC Price School of Public Policy, previously hosted a discussion on homelessness in February 2020. A lot has changed since then.
Former California State Senator Fran Pavley, who serves as Environmental Policy Director for the Schwarzenegger Institute, opened the event.
“The Price Center for Social Innovation and the Schwarzenegger Institute have teamed up once again – the first time right before the pandemic – to discuss the complex issues surrounding homelessness and how the pandemic further shaped this issue,” Pavley said.
USC Price Prof. Gary Painter, who serves as director for the Price Center for Social Innovation and the Homelessness Policy Research Institute, provided pre-pandemic data on homelessness in California and Los Angeles.
Before the pandemic, over 500,000 people experienced homelessness nationally, with 39% of them unsheltered. In Los Angeles County, those numbers were 66,000 and 72.3%, respectively. The main drivers of homelessness were constrained housing supply, severe rent burden, and institutional and systemic racism.
Painter then discussed how COVID directly affected people experiencing homelessness, as well as actions taken by the public and private sectors to address the pandemic’s impact on the unhoused.
In Project RoomKey, which was launched in April 2020, hotels and motels that were not being used because the pandemic’s travel restrictions were diverted to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness that were recovering from COVID-19. At its peak, the project housed over 4,300 people in Los Angeles County.
“You can see that the number of people housed in Project RoomKey ramped up quickly,” Painter said. “I think this is an important lesson for us that we can house people who are experiencing homeless rapidly if we have the resources and the plan, and we’re ready to go with that plan.”
Project HomeKey took the idea a step further with Los Angeles County and California partnering to purchase, rehabilitate and convert hotels and motels into permanent, long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Saba Mwine, managing director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute, moderated a panel discussion featuring California Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, Danielle Latteri with affordable housing developer Jamboree, and John Vu, vice president of strategy for community health at Kaiser Permanente.
Latteri noted that Jamboree opened up three Project HomeKey sites. Traditionally, projects take three years to get to the point people can move in. Through Project HomeKey, Jamboree did it in six months.
“I think we do have a lot of momentum right now moving forward of getting housing done quickly,” Latteri said. “Just with Jamboree, we were able to open up three HomeKey sites and house over 300 Californians in them quicker than we’ve ever been able to before.”
Vu said the pandemic highlighted the need for health systems and major hospital players to step up as anchor institutions. He added that Kaiser is working on figuring out ways to proactively identify housing insecurity amongst its members and patients.
“We have all kinds of grant-making, philanthropy, our community benefit, the power of the white coat connecting health and housing systems, and I think that just revealed itself more than ever during the pandemic,” Vu said.
“Unfortunately, something like the issue of homelessness is everybody’s responsibility but seems to be nobody’s accountability. So we all have to figure out our rightful role in this.”
Bryan noted that the pandemic intensified the root causes of homelessness, and cautioned that we can’t criminalize our way out of homelessness.
“I’m scared of the next count numbers, to be honest with you, because I think what we’ve done is let a lot of people fall through the cracks over this last year, and we haven’t picked everyone back up through this recovery,” Bryan said. “But my intention as a state legislator is to make sure that the state uses all of our resources to make sure that those at the bottom are the ones that we invest in the most as we recover our entire state of California.”
Painter closed the event by stating that California does not want to get back to the pre-pandemic normal when it comes to the homelessness crisis. Instead, the state needs to continue the momentum of immediate short-term solutions such as Project RoomKey and HomeKey, while also developing concrete plans for what housing systems should look like over the next 10 and 20 years.
“With the collective will, we can get there,” Painter said. “We first need to define specific metrics for action in the short term and in the long term, then we can work together to end homelessness here in Los Angeles County, and throughout the state and throughout the nation.”