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Unhoused Residents Speak Out Against ‘Prison-Like’ Conditions At Project Roomkey Hotels

Two organizers hold up a UTACH banner in front of Los Angeles City Hall on May 19, 2021.

[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]urfews, no internet, cable or phone line, daily room checks, suicides and overdoses; these are some of the conditions and situations unhoused residents say they encountered while sheltering in hotel rooms during the pandemic. 

Standing on the western steps of Los Angeles City Hall, unhoused residents living in Project Roomkey—a program to shelter the most vulnerable uhoused residents in vacant hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic—announced the formation of Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing (UTACH), alongside housing advocates and a civil rights attorney.

“The reason why we're here today is we’re introducing the voices of unhoused people. Too often we have people pontificating that are sitting in housed positions telling people what they should be doing with unhoused lives,” Theo Henderson, an unhoused resident and podcast host of We The Unhoused, said on Wednesday morning before introducing speakers to elaborate on their experiences in Project Roomkey.

During the lengthy, unconventional press conference, UTACH outlined pages of demands that the group wants to discuss with city and county officials within 10 days. Those demands include an extension of Project Roomkey, eliminating curfews, requiring that communication between staff members and tenants be made in writing, as well as better access to medical supplies such as Naloxone (more commonly known as Narcan, a life saving medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdose). In a press release the group stated, “UTACH’s mission is to fundamentally transform Project Roomkey and other forms of carceral shelter — that is, housing options where people are treated as if they are prisoners.”

“Let's call this what it is. It's discrimination. It is class warfare,” an unhoused man that identified himself as Phoenix told reporters Wednesday morning. “You're poor, you're homeless, so you should just take whatever crap treatment we give you and that's bullcrap. We are human beings, we have inalienable constitutional rights at the end of the day, plain and simple.”

Phoenix has been unhoused for roughly two years now. In March, after a large tight-knit community of unhoused residents were forcibly cleared out of Echo Park Lake, Phoenix accepted a room at the Mayfair Hotel in Westlake. He says his experience there has been marred by a lack of communication from staff and violations of his privacy.

During the press conference he recalled an instance at the hotel when a staff member reportedly entered his bathroom unannounced. “A staff member barged into my bathroom, you know, while I was handling my business. The person burst into my room unannounced, violating my privacy, and then proceeds to challenge me to a fight because I called him out on the accountability of his actions. When I then tried to reach out to a supervisor, I sat at my door for 45 minutes waiting for a manager.” Phoenix said that the manager never showed up. “The staff are not accountable for their actions. They're doing what they want to do, showing up when they want to show up.”

“When Project Roomkey program was started, we were excited and happy and hopeful,” a woman who identified herself as Natasha told reporters. Initially, Natasha looked forward to “a room, a peace of mind, freedom of our own space, and if nothing else a chance to have a true hotel experience.” Instead, Natasha says that Project Roomkey was more like a prison than a hotel. According to Natasha and other residents that spoke on Wednesday, residents spend most of their time in isolation and are subjected to searches and daily room checks. And despite the name, multiple residents said they don’t actually have a key to their rooms.

Natasha believes that Project Roomkey’s isolation policy contributed to a friend committing suicide earlier this month. “The staff were threatening to terminate him from the program and not offering any support for his mental health. People like my friend are struggling and have no ability to reach out to friends for support, or help due to the rules against congregating inside of the hotel.”

In a statement from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), one of the entities that manages the Project Roomkey program, LAHSA said: “The goal of this lifesaving program is to stop the spread of COVID-19 among our unhoused population. As such, the program design was built around wellness checks, minimal in-person contact, and the overall health and safety of those we serve.” 

In a statement from Harrison Wollman, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, Wollman said: “Our service providers who manage and set the conditions for Project Roomkey sites are some of the most knowledgeable and capable housing agencies in the world, and are committed to delivering the highest quality of care possible.”

A woman that introduced herself as Jen described her experience in Project Roomkey as “traumatic” on Wednesday. “The treatment I've received for standing up for myself and my rights as a human being in this program has impacted my physical and mental health, to the point where I've been put on blood pressure medication.” Jen recalled an instance when her blood pressure reached 154 over 147. She asked the front desk for a resident nurse. “But they never came.” Jen said the situation could have been fatal. “To tell the truth. I would be better off if I had stayed on the streets,” she concluded.

Chris, a former maintenance employee at a Project Homekey location (a county program similar to Project Roomkey) near Chatsworth—who is also homeless—said that they gave their two weeks notice recently due to lack of communication and leadership within management. “I witnessed the mistreatment and abuse of not only the residents but the employees, myself included.”

Chris thought that his experience being homeless would work to his advantage and that the job would be a way to help out in the community. The reality was much different. In some cases Chris felt that residents who raised concerns were targeted. “If they want to cut you off they cut you off,” Chris said. “They don’t care where you go.”

“They’re treating it more like a privatized prison.”

The group of unhoused residents and advocates were joined by civil rights attorney Katherine Rodgers. “'I’m really just here to emphasize that all of the demands here today are supported by a legal team and by legal rights,” Rodgers told reporters during yesterday’s press conference in front of city hall. Rodgers warned that a failure to meet the residents' demands would likely result in litigation. “Unfortunately, sometimes the city needs to be reminded by a lawsuit.”

Towards the end of the press conference Phoenix let everyone know that the group is not going away anytime soon. They’ve already launched a Facebook page and are planning on accepting additional members and organizing more events. “These politicians tried to bury us,” Phoenix said. “But they forgot we’re seeds.”

“What happens when you try to bury a seed? It just grows stronger.” 

In a statement provided to L.A. TACO, LAHSA said: “Over the last year, the homeless re-housing system responded to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis with a quickly organized multi-agency collaboration that has brought over 8,000 people experiencing homelessness who are vulnerable to COVID-19 inside. In partnership with FEMA, the State of California, and the County and City of Los Angeles, we launched Project Roomkey to provide an immediate option for our most vulnerable unsheltered neighbors to shelter in place.

LAHSA welcomes a meeting with UTACH to discuss their concerns and how we can improve the Project Roomkey experience while protecting the health of participants as we support them in their journey to permanent housing.”

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