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Los Angeles Hotels: Serving Travelers or Homeless Individuals?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mark Kling & Linda-Marie Sundstrom
August 12, 2022

The City of Los Angeles is a popular vacation destination for travelers from around the world. Visitors enjoy the beaches, museums and world class restaurants. They also enjoy the numerous hotels that offer high-quality service for travelers and families. But could the landscape of L.A. hotels be on the verge of changing in the near future. There is a proposed ordinance being considered that would require hotels within the city limits to make available all vacant rooms to unhoused, homeless individuals. Is this kind of government intervention the right approach to solving the homeless problem in California?

Homeless Issues

The state of California currently has the highest homeless population in the country (roughly 150,000 homeless individuals). This is about 20 percent of the total homeless population in the United States. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) over 60 percent of people who are chronically homelessness have experienced lifetime mental health problems and over 80 percent have experienced lifetime alcohol and/or drug problems. Most struggle to find employment, permanent housing and routine healthcare. In San Francisco, homeless deaths more than doubled in 2021—mostly because of overdoses. County jails have become the country’s largest de facto psychiatric facility. 

News headlines cover stories such as the 70-year-old California nurse who was allegedly killed during a random assault by a homeless man at a bus stop in January 2022, and two days later, a homeless man allegedly fatally pushed a woman onto New York City subway tracks. Increasing crime, defecation in public, encampments near schools and retail establishments and illegal drug use in plain sight highlight the associated growing public health and safety concerns facing the community. 

The Rights of Hotels

The proposed L.A. ordinance would require hotels in Los Angeles to house homeless individuals if any of their rooms are vacant, despite federal laws which allow businesses to refuse service to individuals. For hotels, this limits the number of rooms available for last-minute arrivals. Unlike paying clients who need to put a credit card on file in case of room charges or damages, those who are homeless face no such requirement. With 80 percent of chronically homeless people experiencing substance abuse, will travelers and families feel safe staying in these hotels?

If a government agency can require a private-sector hotel to provide unused rooms to people who are homeless, could they also require:

  • Movie theaters to allow homeless people to sit in an air-conditioned theater on hot days when there are unsold seats? 
  • Professional sports teams to allow people who are homeless to enter an air-conditioned arena when there are tickets that have not sold out? 
  • Unused cars parked on dealer lots to be loaned out to those without transportation?

Does an ordinance such as this one set a precedence for more government intervention into the operation of a private business?

Project Roomkey

A similar program is already in place in California, but this one is voluntary. Project Roomkey is a voluntary effort by the State, County and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to secure hotel rooms for those experiencing homelessness. Hotels voluntarily sign up to offer their vacant rooms to people who are homeless. The cost of the room is covered by Project Roomkey. The hotels get money for rooms that would have otherwise been vacant, and people who are homeless have a safe place to sleep. Although this may be a temporary fix, the program may lack resources to transition people into permanent housing. CBS news recently reported that one homeless man had been living at the L.A. Grand Hotel for the past two years, (funded by Project Roomkey) and is still unable to secure permanent housing. 

The Rialto Alternative: A Collaborative Model

The City of Rialto, located just outside Los Angeles, has been piloting an innovative way to comprehensively address homeless issues. They have formed a team consisting of:  

  • Law enforcement,
  • Nonprofit homeless advocacy group,
  • County Behavioral Health,
  • City Code Enforcement and
  • Public Works. 

If the Rialto Police Department receives a call-for-service regarding a person who is homeless, the officer, along with a specialist from the nonprofit organization and/or behavioral health will be dispatched. If the situation is assessed to have a mental health or substance abuse component, the behavioral health specialist may take the lead. If the call is focused on other homeless issues, the nonprofit representative may remain on the scene and assist with continuum of care options. The City has created a strong team with a comprehensive approach that is having a lasting impact.

Conclusion

As homelessness continues to grow, cities need to determine who should take the lead in addressing this problem. Is it a government agency? A team of agencies? The private sector? How much responsibility lies with the person in crisis? Government intervention that requires the private sector to house those who are homeless (possibly at the detriment of their paying customers) may be faced with a variety of challenges. However, creating voluntary teams of involved stakeholders may be an approach that addresses the issue, fosters safe and healthy communities and maintains the freedom of businesses to continue providing quality service to their clients. 


Author: Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

Author: Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President.  She worked for 20 years in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades.  She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

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