Motels as homeless shelters? More local governments are housing people in motel rooms

Jared Weber

Every morning, Yolanda Etter wakes up in a motel room and feels at ease. It’s not a vacation — for now, it’s her home.

“I sleep with my door open,” Etter said. “We don’t have any worries."

Etter is one of 24 people who live at the Reno Motel in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles. The longtime motel was purchased and converted into 12 interim housing units by the nonprofit National Health Foundation in 2013.

According to a 2018 annual report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 553,000 people experienced homelessness on any given night last year. Los Angeles County is just one of several areas across the country that, with the help of nonprofit organizations and developers, has begun renovating or leasing motel rooms as a way to uplift its homeless population. The Reno Motel in Los Angeles is one of these.

It’s one of several similar projects across Los Angeles County that have popped up in recent years in response to the city’s increasing homeless population — nearly 59,000 residents, according to a June report from the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority. That’s up from approximately 55,000 people in 2017, and second in the nation only to New York City, which reported almost 79,000 homeless residents last year.

According to a 2018 annual report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 553,000 people experienced homelessness on "a single night" last year. Los Angeles County is just one of several areas across the country that, with the help of nonprofit organizations and developers, has begun renovating or leasing motel rooms as a way to shelter its homeless population.

For many in Los Angeles, the demand for affordable housing was underscored July 30, when the City Council voted to continue restricting homeless residents' ability to sleep in their cars in many parts of the city. An April report from the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation found that rent in Los Angeles is the third-most expensive in the country, relative to city residents’ average incomes.

In all, the city is working to build around 10,000 units of supportive housing, meaning "non-time-limited affordable housing assistance with wrap-around supportive services for people experiencing homelessness" according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. The initiative was set in motion by Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond passed by Los Angeles voters in November 2016. Of the 79 supportive housing projects underway, three are motel conversions. According to city officials, the three facilities will provide 202 total housing units.

Belongings of the homeless crowd a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk in Skid Row on May 30, 2019.

Run-down motels, according to some experts, can be a valuable tool for cities and developers looking to quickly house people experiencing homelessness.

“First of all, it’s built, so there’s no acquiring property and going through the process of getting architectural drawings and building something from scratch,” said Dennis Culhane, a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. “You have an asset that you can basically just polish up and improve. That makes it a lot faster and probably more affordable than having to start from scratch.”

The National Health Foundation designed the Reno Motel in Los Angeles seeking to provide a “recuperative care” model for homeless people who require serious medical attention and rehabilitation, according to Wade Trimmer, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit’s executive director of housing and homeless services.

Trimmer said the 24 guests tend to be ailing and chronically homeless, typically of ages 35 and older. On average, guests live at the motel for four to six months — with their stay subsidized by the government — before transitioning into a long-term housing solution with the help of government vouchers.

“It’s providing safe discharge for individuals who are experiencing homelessness and they’re being released from the hospital,” Trimmer said. “It’s our tax dollars at work to help a really vulnerable population that has health issues and housing insecurity.”

Latanya Brown has been a resident at The Reno Motel since January 2019, and was living in her van for two years beforehand.

Upward Bound House is a local nonprofit based in Culver City, a community of about 40,000 people in southwest Los Angeles County. It has been serving local homeless families since 1991 by providing them with both short and long-term supportive housing, as well as basic resources. Before it opened its temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness, it was an “old, horrible motel,” according to Culver City Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells.

Over the past year, the organization placed a total of 252 families into longer-term housing. “It’s really critical service, in the sense that we’re providing shelter for children who, otherwise, would be in places that are very unsafe and that aren’t meant for people to really live in,” said executive director Christine Mirasy-Glasco.

Sahli-Wells said the city has a handful of run-down motels that it could convert in the near future, which it prefers to building new shelters. "It's kind of no comparison," she said. "Renovations are a fraction of the cost."

Motel shelters are also being embraced by local governments in the cities of Pasadena and Anaheim in Southern California near Los Angeles. In the case of Anaheim, the building may be converted by 2020, according to The Orange County Register.

Outside California, other governments are looking at motel shelters. 

Chittenden County, Vermont — which includes Burlington, another city of around 40,000 people — had approximately 113 chronically homeless people in 2013. Since then, the nonprofit Champlain Housing Trust purchased and renovated three disused motels, turning two of them into permanent housing units and one into an emergency shelter.

Although the city saw an increase of 39 chronically homeless individuals last year, that number would have been higher if not for the three motels, said Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for the Champlain Housing Trust.

“We see, perhaps in the next few years, getting to what we hope is what they call 'functional zero,' in terms of folks who are chronically homeless,” Donnelly said.

The county seat for Multnomah County, Oregon is Portland — a city of about 648,000 people, according to the most recent data. In July, the city and county's joint office of homeless services reported more than 900 people on its family housing waitlist. That number might begin to decrease, though, as the local government begins housing homeless residents in Lilac Meadows, a repurposed motel in Southeast Portland, in recent weeks.

"For us, we really see the benefit of it for helping families get a safe, stable, personal place to help themselves back into house and to start that process," said Denis Theriault, spokesperson for the Joint Office of Homeless Services. "It's providing a better experience than a large, traditional, open-floor shelter. It's also saving us money in the process."

But some critics say officials should consider more permanent solutions when housing homeless individuals or families.

Jennifer Ramo is the executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, a nonprofit organization based out of Albuquerque, the state’s most populous city. From 2015 to 2018, with funding from the state Legislature, her organization spearheaded the creation of a pilot program called Keeping Families Together, which aimed to use permanent housing as a child welfare tool. The program provided 86 families with housing and supportive services. Its housing units did not include repurposed motels.

Ramo said that temporary residence in repurposed motels might be problematic for families, in particular, due to potential overcrowding and lack of permanence. The federal definition of a “homeless individual” includes people living temporarily in “hotels and motels paid for by federal, state and local government programs.”

“What you don’t want to do is move families from one bad situation to another,” Ramo said. “You also don’t want to put families in a situation where they’re seven or eight people in one motel room."

For Etter, staying at the Reno Motel has given her the opportunity to get off the street.

Yolanda Etter lived under a palm tree in San Pedro before having knee replacement surgery and being given the opportunity to live in the motel.

After her ex-boyfriend physically abused her in November 2016, Etter moved her life into her car. But she said the vehicle was impounded by the city of Los Angeles, shortly after, for not having the proper legal paperwork.

Over the approximately two years that she was homeless, Etter said she slept under a roof of palm trees at the corner of South Pacific Avenue and West 22nd Street in San Pedro, Los Angeles — an oceanside community in South L.A. Etter said she used to cry at night, praying to God that he could help her find a place to live.

“I guess he heard my prayers," Etter said. "I couldn't ask for a better place to be."

Members of the motel community work on a puzzle and converse inside the Reno Motel in Mid-City, Los Angeles on August 5, 2019.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Homeless shelters: More local governments are using converted motels