In this file photo, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Home Outreach Team is prioritizing to identify people experiencing homelessness that are in high-risk categories if they contract COVID-19. The high-risk categories are DMH clients who are elderly, individuals with underlying medical conditions, pregnant women. The identified individuals will be given emergency lodging immediately. The Home Team is also spreading information to the general public regarding COVID-19 and encouraging safety precautions. ( Photo Credit: Los Angeles County )

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and statewide stay-home orders went into effect, officials rushed to make more space for those who did not have a safe place to shelter and homeless service providers went into triage mode.

Now with an extended winter shelter, a new year-round shelter set to open soon and Project Room Key, a program to house the homeless in motels, Long Beach has seen some success in supporting those without homes this year, Health and Human Services Director Kelly Colopy said.

While there hasn’t yet been any large outbreaks among the homeless population in Long Beach, officials worry about the older and chronically ill among them who are more at risk of dying if they get sick with COVID-19.

Project Room Key focuses on this population, providing each participant with a room in a motel that’s staffed with a security team, nurses and mental health clinicians. About 130 people are currently in the program, according to Homeless Services Officer Paul Duncan.

The program provides participants with food and asks them to stay in their rooms, only leaving for things like medical appointments. Duncan said some participants left the program because they were unable to follow that rule. But, in the nearly four months the program has been running, it’s seen some success: The program has moved 10 people into permanent housing and has seven more waiting for open permanent apartments.

“It’s a wraparound service model, so we continue to case manage and provide the support they need with the intention that we move them to permanent housing,” Colopy said.

Officials initially opened several temporary homeless shelters at parks throughout the city and extended the operation of its winter shelter to accommodate more people and also provide enough room for physical distancing. The winter shelter usually stays open from December to March, but now it’s set to stay open until the end of next winter season, according to Colopy.

Both the Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Silverado Park shelters have since closed. The MLK shelter was at 30% capacity, housing about 20 or 30 people at a time. Silverado Park had a capacity of 70 people and once Project Room Key went online in April, officials transitioned residents there into either the winter shelter or the motel program, Colopy said.

The city does not yet have any hard data on how many people may have become homeless during the pandemic and Duncan said that a majority of the people accessing the program have been homeless for a long time. The city during its annual homeless count in January found a 7% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness.

“We have been getting more calls around people that are concerned that they’re going to become homeless,” Duncan said ” With the eviction moratoriums that have been in place, it seems to have closed that for a moment, but I think there’s a looming concern that could be a major impact in the near future.”

Project Room Key has operated at near capacity since it started and once someone moves out, they are quickly replaced by a new person, he said.

Colopy said they are expecting to begin transitioning out of Project Room Key at the end of September when the year-round shelter opens. The shelter was originally slated to open in July, but has experienced delays.

However, the program will still operate at half capacity at a smaller motel for those who are more vulnerable and can’t stay in a congregant shelter.

“We found it to be a successful model and we’re glad we’ll be able to extend it as well as the year-round shelter so we’re continuing to grow our housing capacity,” Colopy said.

Those in need of assistance can call the city’s Multi-Service Center to get connected to services.

Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @ValerieOsier