California’s Project Roomkey (PRK) has been hailed as a successful emergency shelter program for those unhoused people most at risk of Covid-19, providing them with services and a path to permanent housing. Despite criticism of its smaller-than-promised scale (LA County delivered under 1/3 of the 15,000 rooms it promised) and discrimination of disabled people, politicians have held PRK up as a replicable program worthy of more funding.
Interviews with 10 current and former PRK residents, however, illuminate systemic problems with the program, problems that often reminded residents of prison and/or the shelter system, particularly the ways in which these institutions seek to control residents’ time and space. In spite of PRK’s punitive policies and practices, residents continue to stay primarily because of their desire for long-term housing — the relative comforts of being in a hotel room rather than on the street also help.
Still, analysis of their experiences reveals a disturbing trend: punitive policies and practices are causing residents to leave PRK or act in ways that get them kicked out. Overall, residents are losing trust in the program, its bad reputation even making its way back to the streets. With barriers to housing and services already too high, officials cannot afford to double down on punishing the poor.
By itself, the schedule of any Project RoomKey site appears strict. Residents are provided three meals per day, delivered to their rooms along with a temperature check. While breakfast is often optional, missing lunch or dinner temperature checks often results in a wellness check, whereby a staff member can enter the residents’ rooms. All residents must return to the facility by 7PM (or slightly earlier), or else they will not be allowed in until the next morning at 7AM when the site re-opens. Exceptions to these rules are dependent upon passes that residents may request from the site manager. Breaking a rule, however, results in a write-up, three of which will result in one’s expulsion from PRK (i.e., a “three strikes” rule).
Jeff Roddenberry, a 62 year-old resident at the Century City Courtyard Marriott PRK site, was well aware of these rules. Jeff and I have known each other since spring of 2020, meeting every few weeks to work on tasks together (e.g., getting Jeff his first smartphone and setting him up with a plan he could afford on his $400/month budget from general relief and EBT). He took pains to show up to our appointments early, anxiously calling me if I was late (I often was).
On the afternoon of Friday, November 13, 2020, Jeff and I made plans for him to meet me near my apartment in Palms, rather than our usual meeting spot outside the hotel. My car tire was flat, but Jeff was in need of cash for essentials. This time, Jeff arrived much later than I expected, having miscalculated the bus route and the time it would take. Limping to our meeting point, his phone about to die, Jeff asked me to call his caseworker to provide a reason for why he would be late returning. I did as asked, and while I thought to call Jeff a cab back to the hotel, I assumed that he would be fine.
The next morning, I received a call from an unknown number — it was Jeff, using his caseworker’s phone, crying. I braced for the news: Jeff hadn’t been let into the hotel, forcing him to spend the night at a nearby bus stop, where he was robbed of his cell phone while sleeping. Further, Jeff’s knee had frozen up while waiting for a bus back, meaning he could barely walk without a cane. On the phone, however, Jeff seemed most concerned with apologizing to me for losing the phone, which I assured him we’d replace. His caseworker was sorry, having come in on an off day to meet with Jeff — he’d relayed our message to the site manager but to no avail; instead, the manager chided Jeff for his tardiness, saying he’d have to make more of an effort to abide by the rules. “They won’t bend on you to help address an emergency in your life,” Jeff later remarked in our interview, “it’s either ‘our way or the highway.’ ”
When I met Jeff the next week, he expressed to me that he was glad to not be kicked out of the program but that he was becoming less trusting of PRK. The curfew violation wasn’t the only reason: he’d had four different caseworkers over the few months he’d been in the program and felt like he was “in a cloud” regarding his case’s progress. Even as Jeff’s housing search picked up, he expressed his worries about not finding a suitable room (the four-person per room shared living facilities he’d been shown were crowded, to say the least). I mentioned these issues to other organizers within Street Watch LA, who affirmed that Jeff’s experiences were relatively common across PRK sites. Other interviewees for this article expressed similarly declining levels of trust in PRK.
For example, one PRK resident who preferred to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation, explained how they and their adult, disabled child received two strikes for their tardiness. Because the hotel they were staying in didn’t have available parking for PRK residents (some hotels, such as the LA Grand in downtown, don’t allow PRK residents or staff to use their on-site parking), this resident and their child had to park their cars several blocks away from the site. When their child was 10 minutes late returning from their car, PRK refused their entry. Fearing for their child’s safety, this resident joined their child to sleep in their cars for the night, despite the fact that their empty bedroom was right there. This happened twice within a short span of time, resulting in two write-ups.
Unlike Jeff, however, this participant decided to voluntarily exit the program after the second write-up, for fear that a third strike would not only result in their sudden eviction but also harm their standing for permanent housing — a common fear among PRK residents, as all incidents are logged in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). In a twisted series of events, this unhoused person was then offered a job as a “disaster service worker” at another PRK site.
These policies and their strict enforcement may be interpreted as tools used by PRK’s service providers to discipline their residents. While having a stable schedule helps certain residents such as Jeff, the strict enforcement of time rules puts him and others at risk of dropping out. The fact that many PRK residents are disabled only exacerbates this risk. Further, as Covid-19 has ravaged Los Angeles and spread to PRK, these sites have instituted strict lockdown measures that limit residents’ time outside to one trip per day (usually maximum three hours). Given LA’s sprawl, this 3-hour time limit inhibits residents’ abilities to get to and from vital appointments. These policies, therefore, amount to a disciplining practice that punishes the most vulnerable PRK residents for slight infractions. Discipline, however, is not solely limited to time: residents also expressed frustration at the way their ability to exist in space within PRK was severely limited, leading once again to exit from the program, whether voluntary or forced.
When a guest (whomever they are) temporarily moves into a hotel room, there are a number of small but significant rituals to make the space one’s own: using one’s keys to open the door, perhaps opening the windows or going on the balcony (if there is one), bringing in one’s core possessions, and changing the space if necessary.
When Halcyon (Hal) Selfmade, 38, moved into the PRK site at Hotel Solaire in Westlake, however, he faced many barriers to creating a livable space for himself and his partner-caretaker. As a disabled person with autism and PTSD, it was incredibly important for Hal to make the space comfortable. His asks were nothing out of the normal for a typical hotel guest: a cot for his partner who has sleep apnea (and wakes Hal up), the ability to bring in his art supplies, a place to cook their own food (every single interviewee expressed how bad the food is, giving them cramps), and no knocking in the morning. The barriers to creating a comfortable space were substantial, however: neither of the rooms they were given had a second bed, despite their asking for it; Hal was encouraged to get rid of his art supplies despite their “necessity for [his] survival;” their electric stove was confiscated; and employees continued waking Hal up early, triggering his autistic meltdowns.
Hal, however, was determined to assert his rights under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), whether with the help of PRK or not: after resorting to bringing in their sleeping pads from the street, with the help of organizer Ashley Bennett they were able to buy a rollaway cot for their room; Hal convinced PRK staff to let him bring in his art supplies; a PRK staff member set up an outdoor cooking station for Hal to use his electronic stove; and Hal repeatedly spoke with staff and made three signs for their door about not knocking in the morning.
Despite these small victories, Hal and his partner went through noticeable distress: Hal’s partner developed hip and back problems over the two months they had to sleep on a floor mat, and Hal suffered multiple autistic meltdowns due to abrupt and loud knocking in the morning. “When you knock on my door like a fucking cop at 8:30 in the morning, when my PTSD has kept me up until two, three, four o’clock in the morning, and I haven’t been able to sleep out my medication — meltdown, instant meltdown,” expressed Hal. These meltdowns resulted in their eventual expulsion from PRK, though they were given two months of hotel vouchers while their housing case settles (at the time of our interview, they’d still only been shown one place, which they applied for).
Residents of PRK have relatively little free movement when within the facility. At the Sportsman’s Lodge PRK site in Studio City, for example, the patio sliding door within each room is bolted shut, the front door accessible by a room key that residents do not possess.
“Why is it called Project Roomkey, [if] we have no room key?” asks Brandi, 27, as they describe how on their second day, exhausted from living on the streets and happy to have a bed, they and their boyfriend Chris took a nap after breakfast only to be awoken by PRK staff entering their rooms for a temperature check. PRK residents do not receive their own room keys and must request a staff member (typically a contracted disaster service worker, sometimes unhoused themselves) to open their door for them. If staff knock and don’t hear an answer, or if the resident doesn’t want to open their door (or if they’re not there at all), PRK staff will then open the door under the auspices of a “wellness check.” With many sites having hundreds of residents, stories of staff opening up the wrong doors for the wrong people abound.
Shane Partaker, 33, for example, explained how he’d accidentally given the wrong room number to staff one day, only to be surprised when he entered another person’s room. To test the system, he later asked staff to open up a friend’s door to place his bike there — they did. These stories and others (e.g., some of Shane’s possessions were stolen when he was gone for a weekend) led his girlfriend and fellow PRK resident Amber Metzinger to coin the nickname, “Project No Key.”
Such violations of privacy, however, can have serious consequences for PRK residents, many of whom are already distrusting of staff and have experienced theft on the streets. Joel, 48, for example, “doesn’t do shelters,” but when his brother (also unhoused) helped sign him and his street family up for PRK, he considered giving it a try. The first week was good, he said, until they started strictly enforcing the rules. Joel wasn’t allowed to bring in his bike tools, for example, which he then stored in his friend’s van. When staff tried to confiscate his Allen wrench, however, he said no and went to his room. The site manager followed Joel and asked for a picture of the tool to document it, to which Joel promised he would show them the next day. Instead of de-escalating the situation, however, the manager forcibly opened Joel’s door with a key to take the photo, prompting Joel to throw a bong at him, which ricocheted off the front door and broke the glass bathroom door. The police were called in, but Joel remembers them understanding his frustration — after they left, he went to bed.
The next evening on his way back to the hotel, Joel received a call from the site manager: he was expelled from PRK, and informed that if he were to ever show up there again they would call the police. His brother was given some time to grab his things, which were brought to his old spot along the 101-freeway. Joel was unhoused, once again, but this time without his street family, who were all still in PRK, and with a negative incident report on his record. Asked if he’d give PRK another shot, he said, “Never, I don’t recommend that place to no one.”
Project Roomkey as Just Another Shelter?
Comparisons between the policies of Project Roomkey and those found within the shelter system, or even the prison system, abound. Released just prior to the pandemic from a decades-long prison sentence, one anonymous PRK resident expressed how difficult it was to go from the relative freedom of the streets to a curfew that reminded them of prison. Another unhoused person with a similar prison experience expressed the same opinion; for them, however, this was enough to not seek out PRK, despite their obvious health and age qualifications. Taking these comparisons and the experiences above seriously, then, leads one to a disturbing conclusion: Project Roomkey is re-creating the punitive policies of the shelter system, and perhaps even the prison system. But why?
The public health rationale is one major reason for limiting the freedoms of PRK participants: we are in a pandemic, after all, so asking people to quarantine in their rooms is normal procedure. The stories of Jeff, Hal, Joel and others, however, are less concerned with the CDC Covid-19 procedures many of us have come to know than with those specific PRK policies that dramatically limit their freedoms: curfews, limitations on their belongings (two suitcases per person, for example), and a lack of privacy, among other policies. While Project Roomkey’s participant agreement claims that curfew hours are “strictly enforced” because they don’t offer “appropriate health screenings” after curfew (i.e., those staff go home), having briefly been inside two PRK facilities, I can say that the health screening includes only a forehead temperature check and brief verbal questionnaire. While PRK pays for after-hours security (one guard must be present for every 50 PRK participants, according to LA County), they don’t employ after-hours staff that could administer these simple health protocols. Despite the fact that Project Roomkey is intended for those most vulnerable to sickness during Covid-19, they employ security rather than healthcare workers overnight, meaning residents are made to sleep outside to ensure “public health.”
It was the strict enforcement of these policies and the disrespect and disinterestedness of some PRK staff that upset PRK residents the most. Jeff wasn’t allowed back into the hotel despite explaining his difficult situation; instead he was punished and left to feel grateful that he was still in the program at all. Hal was expelled from PRK for having autistic meltdowns, even though he explained numerous times what was causing his meltdowns and how it could be fixed. Joel’s privacy was disrespected, and while he responded with physical violence, had staff respected his repeated request or sought de-escalation, it is likely nothing would have happened. The public health rationale does not explain these policies.
Another rationale is that unhoused people don’t possess the same spatial and temporal discipline as housed people, meaning PRK is forced to instill this discipline in them as they seek to appease the anxieties of hotel management and NIMBY neighbors. This rationale is explicitly anti-homeless in terms of the assumptions it makes about unhoused people, as well as the way it seeks to punish them for it. If anything, unhoused people are used to taking up less space than housed people, and their daily rhythm is more a reflection of life on the street (e.g., it is often easier to sleep during the day) than preference. But even if we accept that these assumptions partially fit for a select minority of unhoused people, what is wrong with someone bringing in more bags than allowed and sleeping during the day? Further, how does it make sense to discipline this population for such inoffensive behaviors? Finally, this assumption minimizes the self-recognized needs of unhoused people: PRK residents are not complaining about outdoor dining bans, they are complaining about instances that often threaten their health and well-being. For example, Shane complained about not being able to walk across the street to buy food for their diabetic partner Amber, then waiting nearly four hours for PRK staff to instead do it for them, and then being threatened with a write-up should they do it themselves.
After speaking with multiple PRK residents and other homeless people with substantial shelter and prison experiences, it appears that punishment is a central organizing principle of PRK, leading me to ask why: Is this how PRK leadership and (at least some) staff sees its residents? Is this a way of placating the anxieties of the hotel and the surrounding neighborhood? Is this just how shelters operate, so it was easier to implement an already-existing model, however punitive it may be?
Regardless of the exact answer that explains why PRK is so punitive, the stories cited above and others circulate amongst the unhoused population both within and outside of PRK. Many of the residents interviewed claimed that they would not seek out a spot in PRK again unless there were major policy changes. Even on the streets, when asked about PRK, one anonymous unhoused person quickly summed up a list of common reasons why they wouldn’t seek PRK out, despite possible eligibility: “It’s a pain in the ass to go seek it, then it’s a pain in the ass to get it. And then [to] think I have to change my whole entire routine, everything I do to compensate for any food, anything else, expenses. It’s having to admit I have other expenses in case I ever have an addiction or something… It’s admitting that they can come in my room and search my stuff. ”
While some of these reasons speak to the difficulties of merely accessing services and interim housing in LA County to begin with, the disruption to one’s usual ways of income, consumption and privacy present additional barriers that to some don’t seem worth the trade-off. There is a worrying trend of distrust towards Project Roomkey growing among the unhoused population, and as the stories above and others illustrate, they have good reasons to be distrustful. The Airtel PRK site’s failure to place its residents into appropriate housing (some residents were offered beds in Covid-19-risky congregate shelters) by the site’s planned closing in February 2021 is one such example.
If unhoused people distrust the program that is being hailed by politicians as one good bet to fix homelessness, where does that leave our system? As one anonymous PRK resident said, “my comfortability for me is not the main thing… can I really trust what you are doing [unclear]? Because if I can’t, then guess what, I’ll just go back to what I know.”
Each time homeless service providers re-create the punitive logics of the shelter system (or prison system), they dig themselves a deeper hole to climb out of. One can already see this with LAHSA: while their founding brought much hope, their continual presence at violent sweeps and collaboration with police has harmed their standing with the homeless population. And yet, for many, they will continue to put up with these abuses of their civil liberties, signing contracts that stipulate a strict no-exceptions curfew, because they have no other viable paths to housing.
But do these punitive policies and practices need to exist to begin with? Who are they really for? As less punitive motel voucher programs have shown, they do not need to exist at all. In this case, I have a few suggestions for short-term fixes: 1) Get rid of the curfews, or at least make them later and more flexible (hiring a 24/7 healthcare worker instead of security would be one way of doing this); 2) Give residents their own room keys and allow them the same access to facilities that a regular guest would have right now (e.g., free parking, the ability to open their windows or patio doors, etc.); 3) Allow residents to bring in more of their belongings (e.g., a guest shouldn’t have to stash their bike around the corner of the building); 4) Provide proper accommodations for disabled residents; and 5) Hire and cultivate PRK employees at all levels of the homeless services system who actually care about unhoused folx.
This last point is especially important (and will take longer to implement) because the shelter system as it exists is not designed to help those who are the most vulnerable; rather, it is designed to provide short-term shelter for those experiencing temporary homelessness. For those who are chronically homeless (and also more likely to have serious health problems), shelters often serve to shuffle them off and back onto the streets with the uncertain promise of services and (far-too-limited) housing. Good social workers can mitigate the harms of the homeless services system by, for example, setting up a table for Hal to cook his own food, or coming in to meet Jeff after a particularly traumatic night locked out. Reform is required at all levels of this system, however, including for those in positions of leadership who created PRK’s punitive policies. Any reforms should also make use of the collective knowledge and agency of unhoused people, whose experiences ought to be the basis for any policy changes.
Further, it is not decided that Project Roomkey need look like the failing shelter system because in many ways it does not: residents all expressed appreciation at the comforts of being in a private room with a bed and bathroom, and it appears that those who stick it out are often rewarded with housing of some type. This begs the question: if other less-punitive models exist and Project Roomkey is aware of these systemic issues, why are they so keen to continue to punish their residents? For interim housing programs like PRK to become more successful, they must move beyond the punitive logic of the shelter system. Listening to their residents would be a great start.