L.A. races to distribute housing vouchers to homeless people

Earlier this month, Los Angeles city officials tried something new in their quest to pair the homeless with rental subsidies.

They brought a handful of homeless people the paperwork and resources needed to accomplish these complex applications.

The Mayfair hotel’s lobby and pool area — whose rooms are rented out to non-residents through California’s Project Roomkey program — has become a pop-up hub for people to apply for the nearly 7,000 emergency housing vouchers made available to people in Los Angeles County through the federal stimulus package, which was passed earlier this year.

City and county officials are competing a bit with the times. Throughout the pandemic, Los Angeles has rented thousands of hotel rooms to the homeless to protect them from the virus. These rooms were a landing site where the city conducts outreach in an effort to help people and remove large campgrounds, such as those at Eco Park Lake and Venice Beach.

There are still approximately 1,400 rooms rented, and while plans can still be changed, they will begin closing in the new year. So pairing these coupons with people has a new urgency.

Of the nearly 7,000 vouchers awarded to public housing authorities in the county, very few have so far resulted in rental contracts for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Nationwide, a similar phenomenon occurs with 70,000 coupons generated in the US bailout.

Everything is now ready to get vouchers for those who need them and qualify as quickly as possible,” said Douglas Guthrie, president and CEO of the City Housing Authority.

“It’s not easy. The sooner we issue the vouchers, it starts the second part of the process of finding accommodation, which is also very challenging.”

Los Angeles Homeless Services Executive Director Heidi Marston echoed that sentiment, saying closing hotels is a top priority as her team focuses on placing people orders.

“It’s simply just getting to know the timelines around Project Roomkey,” she said. “We are definitely targeting the people in Project Roomkey. But there are people in other temporary housing locations, and there are a fair number of non-sheltered people. So our outreach teams are also working on enrolling people. So every door on this system focuses on this.”

The city’s housing authority had granted 3,365 vouchers and Guthrie said it had issued 541 vouchers to people as of December 17. So far, the vouchers have been used to rent 38 apartments.

The county housing authority—known as the Los Angeles County Development Authority—was granted a 1964 voucher. Of these, 852 people were released and 52 apartments were rented using subsidies.

Half a dozen city and county officials described to The Times a number of challenges they’ve faced since the coupons became available over the summer. These hurdles have been on top of an extraordinarily competitive rental market, even offering rates for people with well-paying jobs. The large gap between the number of coupons and the number of rental units partly reflects how difficult it is for anyone to rent in Los Angeles, as available units are quickly snatched up and prices make it difficult for many people to find affordable accommodation.

The first hurdle – before looking for a rental housing unit – was related to employment in housing agencies.

Guthrie said he needs to hire 35 new people to do the paperwork and make sure applications are completed correctly. Doing this hiring has been slow, but the city’s housing authority is chasing down the lost time. Guthrie said that in recent weeks, his team has issued 50-70 coupons a week. Her goal is to do 100 per week in January.

The county was able to sift through the mountain of applications faster. This was in part because I hired temporary staff over the summer to help with the process. This has slightly increased the number of requests issued in the county.

Another challenge that both the city and county faced was the quality of the applications they received from homeless service providers and the LAHSA, said Los Angeles County Development Authority Executive Director Emilio Salas. He said tracking people and making sure applications were filled out completely and correctly was a challenge.

About 1,000 voucher applications from people residing at Project Roomkey locations have been submitted to the city’s housing authority. This is part of more than 3,000 applications for vouchers that LAHSA has submitted to the city on behalf of homeless people. As of last month, LAHSA had sent 1,746 more applications to the county’s Salas team.

Guthrie said about half of the referrals his team received lacked basic information, and it was very difficult to follow up with case managers and the homeless themselves.

“The quality of these apps varies greatly,” Salas said.

“Based on the number of referrals LAHSA gives us at the moment, we have enough in the pipeline to really roll up our sleeves and pass it up and try to get all the quality applications or get any other information we need,” he continued. “It’s a lot of sorts over the phone, to go back to your provider and say ‘You’re missing a signature, you’re missing this document, can you give me that information?'” ”

“The key for us is really human power — the ability to hire quickly so we can allocate those resources to this labour-intensive work.”

On top of the challenges posed by program management, finding landlords who are willing to hire homeless people is never easy. Both the city and county offer sweeteners to landlords wishing to rent them to people using coupons. There is a $2,500 signing bonus for landlords, along with a $5,000 payment plan for repairs made to the units.

Local officials hope this will attract more landlords interested in renting to people holding the vouchers. The county housing authority has hired an outside consulting firm to carry out inspections of the units – all in an effort to make the process of getting the keys into people’s hands more smoothly.

“We need to create that energy to get that support [from landlords] The city’s homeless deputy mayor Jose “Che” Ramirez said.

Ramirez helped organize the event at Mayfair, which he said resulted in about 100 voucher applications being completed and submitted to the city’s housing department. There were five people on site from the Housing Authority, along with people from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and LAHSA. The relative success that day encouraged him.

He hopes they can do a similar “pop-up” in the new year at other hotels the city rents to the homeless, and in the future, bring expertise and support from the city’s housing authority and other social service agencies to the streets to help people in the camps correctly complete voucher applications.

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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