John Dew corrals his pug, Sonny, away from the bathroom, where a patch of black mold has sprouted on the ceiling. The 1-year-old puppy has been sickened twice during the seven months he has lived at the Coast Motel, just west of the Traffic Circle on Pacific Coast Highway.

“Don’t touch anything,” he says to a visitor in a slow, graveled voice. “I’m afraid to have people here. I don’t want anyone getting sick.”

Dew, 62, became homeless earlier this year for the first time in his life. A litany of health issues sapped his savings from a career as a building contractor: He says he has had seven back surgeries, a genetic blood-clotting disorder that causes seizures and a noncancerous brain tumor.

He was placed in the Coast Motel by the city as part of its efforts to confront Long Beach’s rising homelessness crisis. The Coast is one of three motels with which the city has contracted and are owned by the same family. At least two of the motels, the Coast and Colonial Motel, also on Pacific Coast Highway, are infested with vermin.

Some of the 32 residents who have stayed at the Coast longer than a month say they have reported a lengthy list of problems to the property manager and, in some cases, to the city, including violence on the premises, unsanitary bedding, mold on the mattresses, blocked fire exits and no handicapped access.

“The towels look like something you would use to work on a car,” says Dew, who cleans himself with a washcloth because his disabilities prevent him from accessing the moldy shower.

LOCKED OUT: John Dew

Homeless advocates have raised questions about whether the city is doing enough to monitor conditions at motels where large sums in public funding have been spent to get people off the street and into safe, habitable housing with services that put them on a path toward a more stable future.

The city has placed roughly 175 people in the motels since January as part of an expanded motel voucher program, paying the motels’ owner $1.8 million, which has come mostly from federal COVID relief funds. The rent for one cramped room with a queen bed is about $3,000 a month. The hotel isn’t required to provide any other services, according to city contracts.

The owner of the motels, Yogesh Patel, says he fixes problems when they’re brought to his attention but blames residents for most of them.

“They bring bugs with them,” Patel said in a brief phone interview before hanging up. “They steal my stuff, they break my windows.”

Patel says he is housing these individuals because he wants to help with the city’s homelessness problem. Despite resident complaints at his motels, the City Council in May awarded him a $2.9 million contract to provide rooms to homeless individuals through at least May 2023.

Close to half of the funding paid to Patel has come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the rest provided through state and federal grant subsidies to support transitional housing, officials say. The city uses only a small slice of its own funds to address homelessness. Of the $93 million it has spent or received since 2021 to help the unhoused, less than 2%, or $1.8 million, came from the city’s general fund.

The City Council’s vote to contract with Patel was unanimous, with no discussion, even though one of his properties, the Colonial, was listed as one of the six worst motels in the city as part of a 2018 pilot program to rid the city of so-called “nuisance motels.”

The Colonial was included in the program because data showed police responded to the facility 569 times in a three-year span, an average of about once every 48 hours. Authorities reported 130 crimes there between 2014 and 2017.

At the time, Patel questioned those figures, saying he employed private security at his hotels and was providing a public service.

“I don’t know if you want to stop renting rooms to people who don’t have a place to go,” Patel said in 2018. “Do you want them to live in huts, camped out on Pacific Coast Highway like we have in Downtown Long Beach on the riverbed?”

Kelly Colopy, the director of the city’s Health Department, says the hotel has improved since being targeted for the pilot program. But recent data shows the situation there has actually grown worse. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 1 of this year, police responded to the Colonial 179 times, an average of once every 36 hours, Long Beach police call records show.

At the Coast, police responded to 75 calls, an average of once every 84 hours.

City records also show that the Colonial and Coast were each cited for building code violations in October 2021. Patel fixed the problems, which included holes and damage to the exterior stucco and roof damage at the Colonial and holes in the walls around electrical outlets in two rooms at the Coast.

Patel downplayed concerns about the security and condition of the facilities, saying no one else is stepping up to help. City officials say Patel, in fact, was awarded the contract because he was the sole bidder when the city released a “request for proposals” in October 2021.

Colopy says Patel is willing to take people in, including their pets, sometimes in the middle of the night. “We’ve done a lot of outreach to other motels,” Colopy says, but it hasn’t produced significant results. 

Paul Duncan, head of the city’s Homeless Bureau, says that when he receives complaints, he notifies Patel to get them corrected. Duncan could not provide the exact number of complaints he’s personally received, but said there have not been many.

City staff do not regularly visit or inspect the motel properties where they have placed homeless people with publicly-funded vouchers. Outside of building code violations documented by city inspectors, there are no centralized records kept of complaints or proof that motel owners corrected them, officials said.

Residents told the Post that they have lodged complaints with on-site property managers at the motels and with the Multi-service Center, which is the central place for referrals to temporary housing, such as motels.

Complaints may have been documented by case managers, but those files are confidential and would have to be requested with redactions, according to Health Department spokesperson Jennifer Rice Epstein. 

No one from the city, or any third party, is on site to handle resident problems, unlike a program called Project Roomkey, in which the city rented out the Days Inn Hotel and hired a nonprofit to staff the facility and provide some services. That program ended Sept. 30.

Initially, Dew says, he was told he would be at the Coast for no more than 30 days and figured he could live with the problems for that time. But he says he was upset when he received no help or services, even after he says he called the city’s social services hub a half dozen times.

A vehicle zooms past the Coast Motel on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach on Nov. 22, 2022. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Recently, he and others were told they had two weeks to find a new place to stay, with their part of the program ending this month because pandemic funds used for their vouchers are drying up.

“What was the point of putting me here?” says 61-year-old Scott Humphrey, who has lived at the Colonial since late March and was among those told they’d need to leave this month. “I thought I could pull myself out of this, but I can’t do this alone. I need help.”

‘Nobody did a thing’ 

Humphrey had been homeless for six years, most recently living in the riverbed at Second Street and Studebaker Road, when he finally decided he’d had enough.

The channel flooded during rains last spring, sending trash and muck into his campsite. Some of his possessions were stolen. He began to worry about the health of his dog, Lulu.

Scott Humphrey, 61, had been living at the Colonial Motel in Long Beach since May 2022, after being homeless for six years. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.

When a sheriff’s deputy visited with a social worker, he agreed to accept their offer of help. They took him to the city’s Multi-service Center, where he spent a day tracking down Social Security paperwork and birth records. He was then placed at Patel’s Colonial motel.

One night, he says he awoke to bees swarming in his room. They were coming out of the light fixture in the bathroom. He says he complained to the property manager and a nest was removed in the unit above him.

Unlike Dew, Humphrey has an emergency housing voucher that is supposed to come with intensive case management. A few weeks ago, he says, a woman knocked on his door, introduced herself as his case manager and said he had two weeks to find a new place.

“I need help and I didn’t get it,” says Humphrey, who has been diagnosed with depression and a range of other health issues.

The 32 residents at the Colonial and Coast who have used long-term motel vouchers–meaning for more than a month–are all being offered alternative housing as the program ends, says the Homeless Bureau’s Duncan. As of mid-November, however, about 15 of them were still trying to find a place.

“We are working with everyone to create a plan for exit with each person and sometimes the options that are available may not be exactly what the person is looking for but we work to find multiple options so that everyone has a place to go and that people aren’t just being kicked out,” Duncan said in an email.

Dew says he was offered a top bunk at the city’s congregate shelter, Atlantic Farms Bridge Housing Community, known as ABC.

“I don’t know how I’d get myself up there,” he says, referring to his significant physical limitations.

Earlier this month Dew moved into a sober living home, thanks to help from a friend from his church, Grace Community in Seal Beach, and local housing advocate Christine Barry. But he left and is now living in his car, in part because he wasn’t allowed to take his dog, Sonny.

“I go to church and I pray that a door will open,” he says. “It’s all I can do.”

John Dew, 62, had been living at the Coast Motel for six months before leaving in early November 2022. He is now living in his car. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.
Making the jump to permanent housing  

Housing people with motel vouchers is nothing new. The city has, in fact, paid Patel for thousands of room nights over the past decade. The city’s quality of life officers and multidisciplinary outreach teams carry vouchers with them as they encounter people on the street. If individuals want help, they are given a place to stay.

But motel vouchers were intended to be short-term stays of a few days, enough time for a case manager to meet with the person and figure out next steps. And those have been limited.

Through its various programs, including motel vouchers, Roomkey and another similar program called Project Homekey, only 63 people of 324 found permanent housing, according to the most recent figures provided to the Post.

City officials say there are many reasons that finding permanent housing for people has been difficult. One of those, they say, is the shortage of landlords willing to rent to people with housing vouchers. Also, they say, it takes time and often multiple “contacts” to get many unhoused people to accept services.

About 200 people walk into the Multi-service Center each day and case managers are overloaded, says Deputy City Manager Teresa Chandler.

“Those experiencing homelessness are trying to overcome barriers,” she says. “But it’s a very complicated process.”

City officials say they are working to provide more permanent housing solutions. This month, Long Beach took ownership of the Luxury Inn in North Long Beach, also a hotel deemed a nuisance in 2018, at a cost of $16.6 million.

When that facility opens for temporary housing in roughly a year, the city will convert another hotel it already owns, the Best Western—now part of a transitional housing effort—into permanent housing, officials said.

And, even as long-term stays are ending at the Coast and Colonial, the city is now housing 40 people at a different hotel, the Hyland Inn on Long Beach Boulevard, as part of a six-month grant to get people out of encampments.

But critics say the city simply shuffles people between temporary housing solutions—and in the case of Patel’s motels, expensive ones that aren’t safe or sanitary.

The city should do a better job of negotiating rates and providing people with assistance to find permanent housing, says Barry, the homeless advocate.

“It’s just dangling this carrot that never leads anywhere,” she says of temporary housing. “We set them up to fail, and then we blame them instead of the bureaucracy.”

Melissa Evans

Melissa Evans is the executive editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach her at melissa@lbpost.com, @melissaevansLBP or 562-437-5814.