Activists bring FEMA ‘sweepstakes’ news to LA council president, urging homeless action

Though the demonstration struck a lighthearted tone, the groups said they were urging Martinez to take up a motion on a serious matter — the continued struggles of tens of thousands of Angelenos who are experiencing homelessness and could benefit from sheltering at hotel rooms.

Housing and homelessness activists urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez outside her Sun Valley home to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Housing and homelessness activists urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez outside her Sun Valley home to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
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A man wearing a boutonniere and clutching a giant check spoke giddily into a microphone Monday morning, as he led a group dressed in cocktail attire down a suburban street in Sun Valley. He was about to “surprise” a Los Angeles city elected official at her home, with a TV sweepstakes-style giveaway announcement.

“We are about to roll up to Council President Nury Martinez’ house with a blank check from the federal government to house unhoused Angelenos,” he said to a camera-man. “I am absolutely excited!”

  • Housing and homelessness activists urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez outside her Sun Valley home to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • La Donna Harrell, who has been living on the streets for over a year, joins housing and homelessness activists as they urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez, outside her Sun Valley home, to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Housing and homelessness activists urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez outside her Sun Valley home to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Housing and homelessness activists urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez outside her Sun Valley home to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Housing and homelessness activists urge LA City Council President Nury Martinez outside her Sun Valley home to commandeer hotels with FEMA money to help with homelessness after the Biden administration said they would reimburse 100 percent of the cost on Monday, February 22, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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The man, activist Devon Manney of Ktown for All, was in character. He portrayed the breathless announcer, and with him were other activists, dressed in sequined dresses and holding balloons.

Though the demonstration struck a lighthearted tone, the groups said they were urging Martinez to take up a motion on a serious matter — the need to quickly address the continued struggles of tens of thousands of Angelenos who are experiencing homelessness. They could benefit from taking advantage of a federal funding program that would shelter many of them in hotel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They said that quicker action was needed on a motion authored by council members Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman that points to the news in late January that President Joe Biden’s administration is offering 100% reimbursement of spending on non-congregate shelters.

Public officials have looked to funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to help pay for programs such as Project Roomkey, which sheltered homeless people who were most vulnerable to COVID-19 but is in the process of ramping down. FEMA typically reimburses 75% of emergency spending, so the announcement by Biden potentially means more funding would become available to extend such programs.

While the motion has been taken up by the homelessness and poverty committee, it may still need to be taken up by the ad hoc committee on COVID-19 that meets irregularly and has yet to discuss this issue, activists say.

That motion calls for exploring the idea of commandeering hotels, an idea that was recently backed as legally possibly by City Attorney Mike Feuer.

But public officials have cautioned that the FEMA dollars would be coming at a time when local governments are facing big budget shortfalls. Elected officials with the county, which along with the city, had been operating several hotels as non-congregate shelters for unhoused Angelenos, have in recent weeks urged FEMA to expedite the reimbursements, or to front-fund the money.

In a statement responding to the demonstration on Monday, Martinez said she was part of those calls, and was “asking the state for front-funding to Project Roomkey so we can actually enact the Bonin/Raman motion.”

“We will take advantage of every single dollar FEMA will give us,” Martinez said. “While the city has secured hotels/motels, we need to do more and the fastest way for us to do this in light of our current fiscal crisis is help with the front-funding. A reimbursement is helpful only if we can get the money up front first.”

Elected officials have worked to use the previous availability of federal funds to shelter around 7,000 people in Project Roomkey, some of whom are transitioning into a longer term program called Project Homekey, in which hotels are being purchased or other sites converted into permanent housing.

But with more than 66,000 people estimated to be homeless countywide even before the pandemic, the calls for action have continued. And at one Project Roomkey program in the San Fernando Valley housed at the Airtel Plaza Hotel, the service provider helping to operate the program has said that finding places for their clients to go once Project Roomkey closes is a significant challenge.

Robin Petering, one of the organizers of Monday morning’s demonstration, said they have been concerned by the outward lack of action on the motion, which essentially calls for a report back on the issue of pursuing federal funding for hotel rooms.

Activists said they hoped to spur faster action at City Hall, with Petering saying the “pace of City Hall” lacked urgency and was “upsetting,” given the immediate needs people have.

“The earlier they do this, the longer people can stabilize, be safe and tap into resources that have been made available and that they’ve been asking for,” Petering said.

She said that they worry with each day that passes, the city could be losing out on funding due to an expiration date on the funding.

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