Tenants’ group forms, striving to keep LA Grand hotel available to house homeless

Homeless activists protest at the LA Grand Hotel in Los Angeles on Friday, September 23, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Homeless activists protest at the LA Grand Hotel in Los Angeles on Friday, September 23, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Homeless activists protest at the LA Grand Hotel in Los Angeles on Friday, September 23, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Prairie Heth, 16, of Venice, visits her father Gary, 57, who is blind and housed in Project Room Key at the LA Grand Hotel in Los Angeles on Friday, September 23, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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A pandemic-spurred program at the LA Grand downtown hotel to shelter people facing tough times, known as Project Roomkey, is set to close at the site at the end of January.

But many remaining tenants at the hotel, which can shelter as many as 500 people at a time, are worried they will be forced to leave their rooms in the coming months.

In response, several of those tenants have formed the Grand Tenants Association. The group held a rally last month, below an overpass in downtown Los Angeles, to share their stories about their experience living at the hotel and to call on city leaders to hold off on closing the site, at least until all its residents have been placed into permanent housing.

“When I got my eviction notice, I wrote to everybody,” said Grand tenant Sonja Verdugo, who said depending on counselors and staff was frustrating, so she went it alone. “I was doing everything I could do to try to get an extension. I was writing to my congressmen, I was writing to everybody. I got no response from anyone.”

But the group’s members hope that raising their voices together will keep the hotel’s doors open to people experiencing homelessness, and to help ease their path to longer-range homes.

The tenants group urged the city to seriously consider purchasing the hotel to use as a permanent site where people can recuperate and have a stable place to live while they continue to seek housing. The group also called for better treatment of tenants and more training of Roomkey staff, among other demands.

In response to tenants’ complaints about their treatment and other statements, the Salvation Army Southern California Division’s general secretary and Metro coordinator, Capt. Sean Kelsey, provided a statement saying those living at the Roomkey site “will be offered an interim or permanent housing solution which they are free to accept or decline.”

“It’s been a privilege to serve the city of Los Angeles and its residents during this challenging time,” Kelsey said. “We’re grateful for the opportunity and want to thank our partners for their leadership and support.”

The hotel is being emptied out in waves, under a plan being carried out by the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority. Residents have begun receiving and will continue to receive notices at different stages, with the first ones issued at the end of August.

Project Roomkey was established during the pandemic to provide temporary emergency housing. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency was expected to provide full reimbursements to cities and counties through July, to fund the programs. After then, the federal government was expected to reimburse 90% of the cost.

The city contracts out 482 rooms at the LA Grand for the Project Roomkey program. As of late September, there were 372 rooms left to empty, according to figures LAHSA officials provided to the City Council.

What’s on the horizon for the hotel itself is unclear. The inn is owned by Shenzhen New World Group, which is at the center of a City Hall developer corruption case. An attorney for the company and a representative of the LA Grand did not respond to calls this week for comment.

Federal prosecutors allege that former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar led a “pay-to-play” scheme that included benefits from Wei Huang, who owns Shenzhen New World Group, in exchange for his support on a project to build a 77-story tower at the site. The trial is scheduled to begin in early 2023.

In response to the rally, and the tenants’ demands, LAHSA issued a statement, saying that they have helped more than 4,400 people through the Project Roomkey program. “We will continue to use these successful methods to place as many Project Roomkey participants into permanent housing and offer every participant a placement into interim housing,” the statement said.

City officials, meanwhile, say no one is being forced out of the hotel and that shelter and housing options are being offered.

A statement from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s spokesperson, Harrison Wollman, denied that anyone was getting evicted. Instead, Wollman described the process as a “transition,” in which people were given two offers of alternative places to go.

“Every resident transitioning out of Project Roomkey will continue to be offered at least two options for either permanent or temporary housing, and individuals with higher acuity needs will continue to be connected with the County’s Department of Mental Health for additional support,” he said.

According to statistics homeless service providers shared with city leaders last month, over the course of the program, which also included other hotel sites, about 40% of Project Roomkey participants ended up getting placed into permanent housing.

But even then, those who were moved out of a Project Roomkey program were not necessarily moved immediately into permanent housing, said Nathaniel Vergow, deputy chief of systems at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“Often that has included a stopover in interim housing before that permanent housing placement,” he said, adding that they are making efforts to avoid that in the latest Project Roomkey site closures, which are referred to as “demobilizations.”

The Grand Tenants Association disputed Wollman’s statement that there were no evictions, stating that “every day we see multiple people being kicked to the street, often without being able to even pack their things.”

The statement was put together by the tenants during a meeting this past Tuesday, said Joanna Swann, an organizer working with The Grand Tenants Association, as the group works toward creating an organization.

Several groups are supporting the unhoused tenants group in making their demands. They include Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing, a group made up of unhoused tenants of Project Roomkey and other types of “carceral” shelters. Other groups include Ground Game L.A., Streetwatch LA and the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

The Grand tenants also said at last month’s rally that they fear the exit notices mean they could get moved into shelters, an option they view as a dead-end route — or too dangerous. And if they refuse, they fear they will end up on the street, further away from the promise of housing that had first drawn them to the Project Roomkey program.

The city is in the process of closing down two other sites by the end of this month —  the Highland Gardens in Hollywood and the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys.

Vergow said LAHSA is “really digging in with all these last three sites, to make sure that folks can get placed directly into permanent housing.” He said they plan on doubling down with housing fairs at the LA Grand over the next three months.

At such fairs already held at the Hollywood and Van Nuys sites, he said participants submitted “forms of interests” on units, and many were taken to see some of them.

Meanwhile, the homeless services agency’s officials say they have worked to improve how they closed sites, often a rocky process. Over the course of past Project Roomkey closures, Vergow said, they had sought technical assistance from the federal government. They are now seeking the same for the Grand, which they said can also help them learn how to close other sites.

The Grand Tenants Association members hope, meanwhile, that acting collectively as unhoused tenants, together with activists in the community, will help lead to solutions — and longer-range places to live.

It was not until she began working with Los Angeles Community Action Network, an organization that frequently advocates for the homeless as well as the poor, that Grand tenant  Verdugo said she felt like she was working with people who were responsive and wanted to help.

They picked her up to get to meetings, gave her food when she she needed it, and were there to answer the phone and give her support when she received her eviction notice from the Grand.

Verdugo said she’s felt alone in her struggle to get housed, and she hopes a unified effort will move city leaders to act on behalf of other Project Roomkey residents.

“If it takes my voice, or anybody else’s voice, it’s what needs to be done,” she told the Los Angeles Daily News.

Verdugo said that she has experienced working as an assistant property manager, but still found the process of being placed in housing to be bureaucratic and confusing. She said she also faced resistance from many landlords who were unwilling to rent to her.

For example, Verdugo said she applied for and received a housing voucher, and was only able to secure housing mere weeks before it was set to expire.

“The stress of finding a landlord who will accept the voucher is unbelievable,” she said.

The process of finding housing is not much different than doing to a job interview, said Verdugo. Should people end up back on the street, both housing and a job would be much harder to obtain.

“You don’t have a place to shower, you don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “It’s a whole hectic world.”

Jennifer Lukhang, who also spoke at last month’s rally, said that she decided to do so because her health was deteriorating, and she was getting scared. As a domestic violence victim, many types of shelters are inappropriate for her, she said.

Lukhang said she only recently arrived at the Grand, after getting transferred from another Project Roomkey hotel that had closed. She had been placed there after seeking help from a domestic violence group, the only one out of the dozens of places that was able to help her.

Service providers then promised she would be safe. “They told us, made a promise to us, that we will not be in another bad shelter, or on the street,” she said.

Another tenant, Mario Rodriguez, said that in the first of the two years he was at the LA Grand, he was overwhelmed by complications from a severe health condition. It was at first “a positive atmosphere in which to heal and move on to safe affordable housing,” he said.

At the rally, he said he wanted to focus on the positives, and felt it was “shameful and a complete waste of money to throw in the towel (by closing the Grand) once success is within reach.”

Rodriguez, a carpenter by trade and country musician originally from Whittier, said he fell on hard times and needed a safe place to stay during the pandemic, where he could be looked after while he recovered from a serious illness.

He still needed help getting to units that he wanted to rent, but staff were not always available to take him, or the unit had been rented to others. Given the tough housing market in Los Angeles, he said, that made the search next to impossible. He added that he would often be pointed to housing that was far from Whittier, where he lived for much of his life, and could be near family, friends and doctors.

Rodriguez said he eventually found housing through a personal connection that led him to someone who had inherited an apartment building, and was willing to take his voucher. But there are others staying at the hotel who may not be so lucky.

Some still have physical and mental health issues to recover from or manage, including depression, he said, and without enough support, they may give up, he said.

“I know exactly what they’re going through,” he said. “It’s overwhelming. It debilitates you, and you can’t do anything. And every time you think about it, you just get scared and more scared.”

During last month’s rally, Rodriguez listed the demands that the Grand Tenants Association were making of elected officials. Included was a call for public officials to raise their standards on what is deemed a success in such programs, saying that “we demand a redefining of ‘success’ in the homeless services system. Cycling people through a system that continues to fail them is not an acceptable strategy.”

In response to the group’s demands, the councilman who represents the area where LA Grand is located, Kevin de Leon, issued this statement through an aide:

“My focus remains on realistic solutions that deliver real outcomes,” he said, “that get people off the streets and keep a roof over their heads.”

Rodriguez called De Leon’s statement “vague and ambiguous.”

“There is a lot left to interpretation there,” he said.

Wollman, with the mayor’s office, said in his statement that funding is now going toward a different program known as Project Homekey that involves buying buildings and converting them into housing for those experiencing homelessness. Some Roomkey sites will be converted into Homekey facilities, but the Grand is not among them,  officials said.

“The Grand is not currently being considered for the program given the resources required to continue operation,” Wollman wrote in his statement.

Rodriguez and others have praise for Project Roomkey. But they also allege that leaders and other public officials have squandered funding made available for the program, and raised issues with how the program was run.

Teri Smith, another tenant, said that up until the rally, she had been afraid to speak up, and she worries that she and others are not really being heard.

She said she believes that, just as important as extending and making the LA Grand a permanent site, was the need for staff to take their concerns and suggestions more seriously, and to work with them.

She also described a dispiriting experience, in which she struggled to have the courage to overcome this feeling of not having much of a voice. She had called a news station to try to share her worries that she and her husband could be tossed out on the streets, but she said that they hung up on her.

“I think that was because I was crying, and they couldn’t understand me,” she said. “But I never called back because of that.”

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Like Rodriguez, Verdugo also believes the LA Grand and Project Roomkey has too much potential to be tossed away, and like Smith, she thinks it means making deeper improvements to how the program is run and how tenants are treated.

“This was kind of like a stepping stone, but it was kind of destroyed by the way they treated us,” she said. “And then, especially at this end part, all of a sudden they are scrambling to get us out of here. They didn’t do anything the whole time. Two and a half years. Nobody talked to me about a housing planner until August.”

Verdugo, pointing up to the gradually emptying LA Grand tower during the rally last month, remarked that, “there shouldn’t be people on the streets, not with this place right here.”