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With FEMA Picking Up the Tab, Will California Lawmakers House the Homeless?

AFFORDABLE HOUSING-A little more than a week ago, the Biden administration made a major announcement: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide 100 percent reimbursement to counties for shelter-in-place hotel costs for the unhoused.

California lawmakers have no excuse for not capitalizing on Biden’s offer, but the big question remains: Will they make things happen? 

California’s homeless population is more than 150,000 people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, unhoused individuals and families have been desperate to find shelter to protect themselves from the lethal outbreak. Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out Project Roomkey, which aimed to house the state’s homeless in motels and hotels. But the program had varying degrees of success. 

One of the problems, activists noted, is that local officials were hesitant to use the program, fearing they’d get stuck with hotel bills if federal funding for Project Roomkey suddenly stopped. 

With more than 150,000 lives on the line, that worry was mind-bogglingly defeatist  — you do what you can now to help people during a deadly global pandemic, and then figure out solutions to problems once they come up. It also revealed the disturbing mindset of lawmakers to seriously address the homelessness crisis — for years, they’ve lacked a sense of urgency and have shown little to no ability for creative problem-solving.  

The Biden administration’s announcement, though, should put financial concerns to rest. Along with providing 100 percent reimbursement, FEMA will also reimburse costs retroactive to January 2020. And the federal government will keep paying until the pandemic ends. In other words, the plug will not be unexpectedly pulled on local politicians. 

But in a recent column for L.A. Progressive, advocate Randy Shaw pointed out that local lawmakers are still not moving quickly

“With thousands sleeping on streets,” Shaw wrote, “the Biden Administration’s plan to fund 100 percent of the cost of temporarily housing them is great news. But cities and counties must seize these federal dollars. And given their slow response so far, hundreds of millions of federal homeless dollars could go unspent.” 

The other week, San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen also sounded the alarm: “The Biden Administration’s recent announcement that 100 percent of shelter-in-place hotel costs will be reimbursed by the federal government means there is no excuse not to make shelter-in-place hotels available to all those who need them. We can and must do the right thing and make sure people who are experiencing homelessness are safe through the remainder of this deadly pandemic.” 

That’s especially true for Los Angeles County, where homelessness has continually increased, with more than 66,000 people living on the streets in 2020. In addition, homeless deaths in L.A. County shockingly rose by more than 30 percent last year. People need help — and they need it now.  

The Biden administration is providing that lifeline, and California housing advocates will be watching county and city officials closely. Now is the time for action, not more hand wringing. In fact, it could be an opportunity: if local officials show they can effectively house the homeless in hotels and motels during the pandemic, they can make a strong case for more federal homeless dollars once the pandemic subsides. 

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(Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right and a CityWatch contributor.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.