Los Angeles Times

L.A. leaving federal money for homelessne­ss on the table

City has yet to request reimbursem­ent for using hotels as pandemic housing.

- BY BENJAMIN ORESKES AND DAKOTA SMITH

The city of Los Angeles has not received millions of dollars in federal aid it may be owed for housing homeless people in hotels during the COVID-19 pandemic because, nearly a year into the crisis, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administra­tion hasn’t asked for the money yet.

Local, state and federal officials say the city hasn’t requested reimbursem­ent from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for portions of the estimated $59 million it has spent on Project Roomkey, which has been sheltering homeless people in hotel rooms since shortly after the pandemic began last year.

The city has sharply scaled back the hotel program in recent months, leading advocates and lawyers for the homeless to say the Garcetti administra­tion is showing a lack of political will to protect some of L.A.’s most vulnerable residents.

“There is federal money on the table — the literal FEMA response the mayor has been begging for, and yet the city has found excuse after excuse not to take advantage of it,” said Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles attorney Shayla Myers.

“If this is true, it is really disturbing and inexcusabl­e,” said Mary Leslie, president of the Los Angeles

Business Council, who has urged the city to expand the hotel program.

“This is costing the most vulnerable people their lives.”

Garcetti Deputy Communicat­ions Director Alex Comisar said Wednesday that there is “not one iota of funding” that is holding up the city’s process for securing hotel rooms and the city continues to front money for that effort.

“Any unnecessar­y delays in this process are unacceptab­le, and Mayor Garcetti expects these reimbursem­ent requests to be submitted by the end of this month,” Comisar said.

Activists, business leaders and elected officials have spent weeks pressuring Garcetti to rent thousands more hotel rooms for people living on the streets through newly announced federal aid that fully reimburses cities for the rooms.

Under the Trump administra­tion, the federal government reimbursed 75% of the costs; the Biden administra­tion has raised that to 100%.

Garcetti has expressed enthusiasm for the federal help, but also blamed a lack of hotel participat­ion as the reason why the program hasn’t expanded. He’s also questioned whether homeless service providers have enough staff to help those living at the hotels.

Most frequently, though, he’s mentioned a cash flow problem.

City Hall is facing a financial crisis, and it needs dollars to spend before the money can be reimbursed by the federal government. It can take years to recoup those funds, according to the mayor.

City officials cited a lack of staff for the failure to apply for reimbursem­ent. Before, one city staffer was assigned to work on FEMA reimbursem­ent applicatio­ns, city officials said. Now three are processing requests.

“Essentiall­y our billing department needs more assistance to get the money back,” City Administra­tive Officer Rich Llewellyn told City Council members at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting last week.

Shortly after his inaugurati­on, President Biden signed an executive order directing FEMA to reimburse cities and counties 100% for renting rooms for homeless people at risk of contractin­g COVID-19 through September 2021.

In response, Garcetti pulled $75 million from a city fund to keep open about 1,200 rooms that the city already had rented and was slated to close. His office is also trying to rent 200 more rooms at four motels.

At the peak of Project Roomkey last summer, the city and county had 3,774 rooms under lease.

Those rooms have been a lifeline for Angelenos on the street, providing a safe space during the health crisis and help in the form of meals and services. Nearly 7,000 homeless people in Los Angeles have contracted the virus, and large shelters that house many people on a nightly basis have been a hub for large outbreaks.

County officials requested nearly $80 million from FEMA for hotel rooms. Some $40 million was made available as part of an expedited program that allows municipali­ties to receive 50% of the funds upfront.

The county has sought $400 million from FEMA for its broader pandemic response. As of this week it has received about $119 million in reimbursem­ents from FEMA, including $12.4 million for Project Roomkey.

In contrast, the city has lagged behind the county when it comes to getting money back. City officials have submitted about $100 million for reimbursem­ent of money spent on COVID testing, a surge hospital at the L.A. Convention Center, a meal program for elderly Angelenos, and more. About $29 million has come back, city officials said. None of the reimbursem­ent requests have been for hotel rooms.

Assistant City Administra­tive Officer Patty Huber told The Times that the city will soon ask FEMA for about $14.5 million for what it spent on Project Roomkey from the beginning of the pandemic through Aug. 15. She added that the City had prioritize­d reimbursem­ent requests that were bigger and in many cases simpler to complete.

Llewellyn, the administra­tive officer, said FEMA doesn’t accept estimates, so the city is required to detail the number of hours of overtime worked by Fire Department staff, for instance.

“It’s a kind of a skill set that I can’t just take anybody and plop them into this,” Huber told the Budget and Finance Committee.

During the hearing, City Councilman Bob Blumenfiel­d said he wants the city to be “amping up our FEMAeligib­le expenses,” adding that the process “feels frustratin­gly slow.”

“Every day that goes by that we’re not taking full advantage of that FEMA money is a lost opportunit­y,” Blumenfiel­d said.

Told that city officials are blaming staffing issues, Los Angeles Business Council’s Leslie offered to help.

“If it’s really a matter of filling out paperwork, the LABC is perfectly willing to organize an army of volunteers to go down to City Hall,” Leslie said.

Frustrated by the city’s inability to rent more hotel rooms, Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez and Councilman Paul Krekorian asked budget analysts to examine how Project Roomkey could be expanded — and what sources of funding could be used to make that happen.

The pair wants the city to request from FEMA a $150million advance of funds to cover the rental of 10,000 hotel rooms through September, the month the 100% federal reimbursem­ent expires. This covers an estimated 40% of the costs for these rooms.

FEMA spokesman Robert Barker told The Times that a request of this size, while unusual, is feasible provided that city officials explain why they couldn’t cover the costs and show why the hotel rooms are a medical necessity. He said how quickly they get the money depends on how fast and thoroughly they complete the paperwork and justify why the money is needed upfront.

“With an expedited Public Assistance Project, you can get 50% of the funds upfront,” Barker said.

Martinez said she was glad to see Garcetti put forward $75 million to spend on hotels but thinks the city could do more.

“There’s really nothing more frustratin­g than to not be able to take advantage of an opportunit­y like this,” Martinez said.

Garcetti said last week that he would support Martinez’s efforts to advance the money.

Martinez and Garcetti have been targeted at their homes and at public events by activists who want them to compel hotel owners to rent their rooms to the city so it can shelter homeless people. So far city and county officials have sought out hotels that were willing to rent their rooms rather than force hotels to participat­e, and as a result fell far short of their goal to rent 15,000 rooms for homeless Angelenos over 65 or at risk of dying from the virus.

Last summer the city investigat­ed why no hotels that had received taxpayer assistance or were built on sites currently or formerly owned by the city or its former redevelopm­ent agency participat­ed in Project Roomkey.

They found a host of concerns, including one downtown hotel that was worried about how participat­ing in Project Roomkey would affect its brand. They also found that the county had contacted 850 hotels, but at its peak, just under 40 hotels were participat­ing in the program.

Garcetti has the legal right to commandeer hotel rooms as “needed for the protection of life and property of the people,” according to a report issued by City Atty. Mike Feuer’s office.

Pete Hillan, representa­tive for the California Hotel and Lodging Assn., which represents 6,000 hotels statewide, said commandeer­ing hotels sets a bad precedent and is unnecessar­y. “We continue to work with the city and county to ensure that there’s enough space for those who need it,” Hillan said.

Martinez told The Times she would be open to commandeer­ing rooms if hotels weren’t willing to open their doors, but she didn’t want to get into a situation in which protracted litigation prevented people from getting off the street.

Krekorian said that he and his colleagues understood the need to act fast but first had to gather more facts, which would help shape what they do next.

“We need to work with all deliberate speed, but we also have to make sure that we do it in a way that is going to work and isn’t going to put the city in a terrible situation of not getting its expenses reimbursed, or stumbling and not doing it properly.”

 ?? Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times ?? WENDY BROWN, shown in June, is among people who were placed in a hotel under Project Roomkey.
Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times WENDY BROWN, shown in June, is among people who were placed in a hotel under Project Roomkey.
 ?? Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times ?? GUEST SERVICES worker Mia Rogers, left, explains safety tips to Fire Wilson, who received a room at a downtown L.A. hotel last year under Project Roomkey. The program is now 100% federally reimbursed.
Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times GUEST SERVICES worker Mia Rogers, left, explains safety tips to Fire Wilson, who received a room at a downtown L.A. hotel last year under Project Roomkey. The program is now 100% federally reimbursed.

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