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Should vacant hotels in Los Angeles house the homeless? Voters will decide.

Marriott International, Inc.

By Nick Watt, CNN

(CNN) - On an average night in Los Angeles County, more than 60,000 people are homeless. At the same time, there are more than 20,000 vacant hotel rooms. In 2024, residents will get to vote: Should those rooms be offered to the unhoused?

"It's insane. It isn't going to solve the problem," says Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, which represents hotels and other businesses across the north of the city. He fears housing the homeless in hotels will put people off visiting Los Angeles.

"I wouldn't want my kids around people that I'm not sure about. I wouldn't want to be in an elevator with somebody who's clearly having a mental break," he says. "The idea that you can intermingle homeless folks with paying, normal guests just doesn't work out."

The ordinance was proposed by Unite Here Local 11 -- the union that represents most of the city's hospitality workers. Now that they've collected enough signatures, whether to house the homeless in hotels will be on the ballot in March 2024.

"By no means do we think this solves the homelessness crisis. But do hotels have a role to play ... of course they do," says Kurt Petersen, the union's co-president.

If voters give the green light, every hotel in town -- from a suburban Super 8 Motel to glitzy hostelries like the storied Biltmore -- will be required to report vacancies and welcome homeless guests who have a voucher from the city. The hotels would be paid market-rate for the rooms. The measure would also have implications for developers, who would have to replace any housing knocked down to make way for new hotels.

"They don't seem to understand who the unhoused are," says Petersen of hotel industry opponents. "We're talking about seniors, students, working people -- that's who the voucher program would benefit the most."

How to handle the city's worsening housing and homelessness crises are principal planks in every campaign for local political office. In polls, more than half of LA voters say tackling homelessness is their number one concern. The county's homeless services agency has an annual budget of over $800 million, which is spent on everything from counts to counseling, from shelters to permanent housing.

Yet, the homeless population is still climbing; ramshackle encampments dot Los Angeles' streets and parks.

In early 2020, the city saw a 16.1% rise in homelessness compared to the previous year. The agency said at the time that despite expanded homeless services, "economic conditions and (the) legacy of systemic racism" continued to push more people to homelessness. In 2022, the number of homeless seniors in particular is on the rise, the agency said.

The idea to use vacant hotel rooms came from Project RoomKey -- a pandemic-era program funded by the federal government that sheltered more than 10,000 homeless people in more than 30 hotels that volunteered to participate, Petersen says.

"It's common sense," according to Petersen. "It already happens, it's been happening more during the pandemic. It needs to continue to happen."

About a quarter of RoomKey participants eventually moved on into permanent housing. But the project is now winding down.

Shawn Bigdeli, 40, was homeless after losing his job. He has been living at the LA Grand Hotel since March thanks to RoomKey. "It's a blessing. It's a great room," he told CNN.

Bigdeli will need to move out by the end of next month -- but he doesn't agree with making housing the homeless mandatory for every hotel.

"I don't think that's a good idea," he says. "You know, there's a lot of people with untreated mental health and some people do some damage to these poor buildings."

According to a 2020 report from the homeless services agency, more than 14,000 unhoused people in the county have serious mental illnesses and more than 15,000 are grappling with substance abuse issues.

Manoj Patel, a Motel 6 manager in eastern LA County, told CNN he once faced a $4,000 repair bill after a homeless guest trashed her room.

"The bathroom was completely damaged," said Patel. "I guess she threw something, took the 43-inch HD TV out. And then she felt voices or demons were coming out of the room or something. She marked all walls. The curtains, she burned. Thank God there was no fire."

Patel continues to rent rooms to homeless people vetted and paid for by a local church, but he is also against making this mandatory.

"We barely are surviving," he said, after the pandemic and the high gas prices that stymied his bounce back. "Number two: we have to think of the safety of our staff. And number three, we're not professionally or otherwise equipped with any of the supporting mechanisms that the homeless guest would require."

If voters approve the proposed measure, the City Council will have to decide how to fund it -- and what services, like counseling and permanent housing assistance, to provide alongside a free room for the night.

"We all want to help the homeless, but we don't want to just put a band aid on it," Patel says. "You're trying to address an issue and creating an even bigger issue. And in the process, you're actually, I think, taking the entire hospitality industry and devastating it."

Like Waldman, Patel worries the move would make tourists stay away. "Honestly, would you check into a hotel knowing that the chance of your neighbor to the left or right is a homeless individual?" he said.

The safety of other guests and staff was cited by many hotel managers and industry representatives that CNN spoke to as a reason not to move unhoused people into hotels.

But some employees called it a hypocritical response.

"That's a hypocrisy from the hotels because during Covid, they didn't care about housekeepers," Liliana Hernandez, a housekeeper and Unite Here union member, told CNN.

Hernandez, who was out of work for 18 months during the pandemic, said she supports the bill as it would increase her job security and potentially increase the stock of affordable housing for her and her colleagues.

Some, she says, now live as far away as Bakersfield, around 113 miles north of the city. "They have to drive three hours to come to work," she says. "And three hours home afterwards."

The union says the motivation behind this bill is to ease the housing crisis for its members and the city. Opponents have questioned those motives, pointing out the union could, at any point, withdraw the bill.

"They want to use it as a negotiating tactic," says Waldman, of the commerce association, about the union. "I also know that the unions are reaching out to the hotels saying they'll withdraw the ballot measure if more hotels sign union contracts."

A union representative told CNN this was false.

"We are trying to make them accountable, sure," Petersen, the union co-president, said when asked about the criticism. "We want the hotels to be accountable to the community."

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