Lectures

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Problems with Project Roomkey in the COVID-19 Pandemic

This article is part of the series:

Constrained to exist in public spaces, the homeless are constant targets of regulation, criminalisation, expulsion and erasure.” – Randall Amster

On April 3, 2020, Californian Governor Gavin Newsom announced the implementation of Project Roomkey: the state’s initiative to aid those in situations of homelessness amidst the COVID-19 crisis. As growing fears of coronavirus contagion became more prevalent, it fell to officialdom to focus on demographics deemed particularly “at-risk” to assuage public concerns. Sensibly, the project aims to secure 15,000 hotel rooms for “homeless candidates” deemed particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Yet serious problems exist with this intervention. Primarily,the suddenness and urgency with which the virus was publicised left little room for critical or constructive decision-making. Instead, by considering the pandemic as an isolated event (without appreciation of context or history), autocratic global solutions were implemented through strict quarantine and lockdown efforts, demonstrating what critics identify as the emergency imaginary [1]. Under this, issues that lead to or exacerbate a crisis are rejected and intervention is considered the only reasonable response, bringing with it methods for control under humanitarian hubris: sufferers become objects [2], death and illness become statistics [3], lives become measurable and so the categorisation of lives is (re)established [4]. That is to say, the logic of Project Roomkey distinguishes the (hapless) lives to be saved from those who are able to save, setting in place the respective values of said lives.

While COVID-19 is indiscriminatory in terms of contraction, it is highly discriminate in fatalities. The most at-risk individuals include those already suffering from health problems which disproportionately affect those experiencing homelessness [5]. Despite this, the present emergency-focus has meant authorities have avoided discussion of long-term solutions to homelessness. By temporarily “sweeping away” urban street dwellers from public areas into confinement, public concerns have been prioritised over efforts to effectively remedy homelessness.  

This is evident in pandemic-management which, while granting more affluent demographics temporary vacation time, has come at the expense of longer-term economic considerations which are forecast to seriously impact the poor [6]. Additionally, repeated slogans from officialdom such as “Stay at home” and, “Keep your distance” are behavioural luxuries that poorer communities and those experiencing homelessness can seldom afford. The coronavirus outbreak exposed inequalities between the haves and have nots – those who can benefit in times of duress versus those for whom unobtainable expectations produces additional anxiety. It is under this guise that forms of state charity have emerged, yet its eventuation is as much a product of class distinction as it is a reinforcer of it. The neoliberal approach to managing the COVID-19 crisis is not as the [façade of] emergency suggests, without pretext. In fact, the discourse guiding the Californian state charitable response for homeless individuals in Project Roomkey could have been predicted based on a brief review of homelessness as a phenomenon throughout US history.

Homelessness in California: The Economic Pretext

The history of homelessness in the United States is, as with most sociopolitical phenomena, a story of economics. Homelessness has served a necessary capitalist function beginning with the ‘wandering men’ – a mobile source of labour in the industrial city [7]. Establishing residency along rail transit lines and on the periphery of cities, geographic spaces created by this workforce blended local business and social dimensions, establishing community for those who in times of economic downturn faced subsequent unemployment [8]. “Skid row” – with its Single Room Occupancy units (SROs) and cheap lodging – reflected US economic trends, shrinking in times of abundance and expanding in times of economic hardship. Affordable accommodation eventually attracted other residents; the unemployable (often with health or addiction related issues), the night-working women and other cultural misfits, so that by the 1950’s, Skid row inhabitants became all but external to mainstream society.

Two significant events shaped urban ghetto demographics in the post-war era. The first was deindustrialisation. This marked the end of associating Skid row inhabitants with their reserve labour instrumentality. Instead, the mostly single, white male occupants became only known for their failure to observe social norms (routine schedules centred around steady labour) or their duty to fulfil social, political, or community roles [9]. As such their dwelling place directly implicated their personhood; their character, status, and value. In other words, Skid row and ghetto inhabitants were judged by where they lived, not who they were; generative of the social imaginary of the “homeless” as a person, not an experience.

The second was deinstitutionalisation which took place over the course of the 1970’s. Those suffering from acute mental illness were forced from state-funded facilities without sufficient housing or medical provisions, tripling the homeless population throughout many US cities. While deinstitutionalisation operated under the guise of “liberating” former patients, in reality it freed up state and federal funding from an expensive interventionist endeavour. The effects of deindustrialisation and deinstitutionalisation served liberal discourses that determined class and status as a matter of choice – not of sociopolitical design or failure. Negative effects from policies generated by this discourse accelerated under Reagan’s administration during the 1980’s, when minimal welfare benefits under the New Deal and Great Society initiatives (limited in application but nonetheless there), were abolished in favour of capital-first mandates. Public housing and SROs were sold and destroyed to make way for more profitable real-estate construction, forcing thousands onto the street. Class distinction increased and the poor who could no longer access low-cost housing options became increasingly marginalised to the point of invisibility. Government and public attitudes towards the resulting increase in Californian homelessness remained confined to this discourse of homelessness by “personal choice” and as such, was addressed through punitive measures [10]. Indeed, California is both home to more unsheltered urban dwellers [11] and has more anti-homeless laws than any other US state [10].

This criminalisation of the poor is the product of the same discourse that implies poverty as matter of choice and continues to ignore evidence to the contrary, including the correlation of homelessness with periods of economic downturn. It also ignores structural failures throughout the mental and physical healthcare services and the effects of stigma and social classification which this unchecked discourse recreates. Research quantifiably points to public medical failures leading to homelessness [12] [13]: Inability to work due to injury or illness and the expiration of personal resources to cope (e.g, limited insurance or family support) often ends in some form of homelessness. In fact, medical issues are more prolific amongst homeless demographics as both a precursor and amplifier of health-related issues. Physical conditions like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, hypertension, vascular disease, seizures, and most other infectious and chronic conditions affect transient residents over their domiciled counterparts by factors ranging from two to twenty [14]. Additionally, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council notes that the lack of having basic storage for medicines means diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure patients suffer the effects of these illnesses more acutely. Researchers and psychologists have also identified the reciprocal relationship between mental illness and homelessness; not only do individuals experiencing homelessness have a higher frequency of post-traumatic disorders, but homelessness itself is produces symptoms of psychological trauma [15]. These same experts argue the provision of safe and stable shelter is the most suitable antidote to trauma – for both past and ongoing experiences – which can be exacerbated when social bonds and support networks are disrupted. For instance, when individuals are removed from their respective communities and placed into isolation which is an “assault on their sense of personal control.”.

Yet despite these political and individual limiting factors, homeless individuals have and do exercise agency by giving life to various communal spaces within the urban landscape; places which are synonymous with relationship, compassion and care. As researchers Cloke, May and Johnsen note, “[T]hese broadly ‘postsecular’ service spaces – of the night shelter, hostel, day centre and soup run – represent spaces of praxis in which secular and faith motivation collude in new forms of ethical citizenship that run counter to, and sometimes actively resist, more familiar models of social control.” [2, p. 2]. Further, they argue the assumptions of refuge shelters being instrumental in “sweeping away” unwanteds from areas of visibility is a gross generalisation that undervalues the complexities of homeless geography. People who are homeless are, as academic Susan Ruddick asserts, social subjects, “who both create themselves, and are created, in and through the evolving spaces and politics of the city.” [16, p. 35].

Conversely, government technologies employed to assist homeless populations take on a very different form of charity. As urban theorist Mike Davis writes, “The old liberal paradigm of social control, attempting to balance repression with reform, has long been superseded by a rhetoric of social warfare that calculates the interests of the urban poor and [others] as a zero-sum game.” [17, p. 224]. Capital-first mandates premised on faulty logic only instrumentalises charitable policy initiatives to further class divisions and re-establish social imaginaries: where the valuing of lives rests on who is able to be charitable as separate and superior to those who are considered objects for charity.

Project Roomkey’s Fallibilities

Project Roomkey fulfils this criterium neatly. While the intentions to source 15,000 hotel rooms for asymptomatic and elderly from amongst the “vulnerable individuals experiencing homelessness” appeared noble, critics point out that 15,000 is only a scratch on the 150,000 surface of people experiencing homelessness in California. Additionally, claims have been made that these figures are misleading – only one-fifth of the hotel rooms secured for the project have reportedly been tenanted as of July 19, 2020.

The official press release also omits any additional information – marking absent the object of the charitable venture. Indeed, the project is set to benefit hoteliers more than those from the homeless communities it ostensibly assists. COVID-19 has brought a sudden halt to travel and in lieu of tourism, state funds directed to Project Roomkey support these businesses in a time of economic decline. Such diversion of funds for public services and support to the private-sector in times of disaster (specifically for corporate benefit) fulfils the criteria for what is described as “disaster capitalism” [18]. This involves an initial shock to economies (for example in the outbreak of a pandemic), effectively creating a blank-slate from which governments can prioritise private-sector capital growth over public services and support structures. This is evident on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Frequently Asked Questions webpage for Project Roomkey. It covers the conditions for the temporary lodging scheme on issues concerning hoteliers specifically: the strict guidelines for eligibility, the extent of time the project would run for (which is a fixed three month term from when the hotel decided to open their doors, not when the pandemic subsided nor when it was safe for the new tenant to leave) and the assurance of twenty-four hour, on-site security, and of police readiness-to-respond.

The contrast in motives behind fiscally driven “relief efforts” with the motives of service-provider agencies produces two very different and distinct outcomes. The former deems the temporary hotel occupant as a commodity – a rather objectifying approach. Alternatively, in evaluating the recovery efforts and afterlife of Hurricane Katrina, researchers Adams, Van Hattum, and English deduce non-government organisations and non-profit volunteers are more effective in providing care for those in need. They identify problems with state-aid dependency under the disaster capitalism paradigm explaining: “Chronic disaster syndrome… [should] be used to refer not just to the individual diseases associated with the stress of disruption that manifest in individual bodies but also to the social conditions that produce distress, tied in nonspecific ways to larger political and economic arrangements that generate belief in, but ultimately prevent, recovery from disasters.” (p. 616). Denied essential political life or, bios, individuals experiencing homelessness are stripped to bare life (zoe) [19]; to be separated, regulated, and erased as officialdom sees fit. The relocation of those more vulnerable individuals to places for isolation has also generated stigma and negative attitudes reminiscent of the NIMBYism (not in my backyard) movement of the 1990’s. The city of Laguna Hills for instance, filed a lawsuit against Project Roomkey, declaring it to be a “public nuisance… endangering the health and safety of [their] residents.”; recasting these people as problematic and an issue apart from the rest of domiciled society.

The haste with which Project Roomkey was set in motion left little room for questioning the short tenure of the relief effort. FEMA funds directed to the project amounted to a generous US $150 million, a sizeable amount that could make a significant contribution towards long-term housing solutions or the establishment of medical healthcare facilities to provide preventative care for poorer populations. Both would address systemic issues that otherwise have the adverse effect of perpetuating homelessness. Additionally, little regard has been made to the potential adverse effects of isolation on patients who face mental health issues. Under the emergency COVID-19 response, physical health has been prioritised over mental health, proving that bodies can be managed and controlled as the state deems necessary. Acceptance into the project also demands hotel residents abide by strict rules and curfew regulations, crediting the revanchist notion that “unknowables” should remain invisible and away from the public eye. The denial of agency and separation from one’s familiar local community is a high price to pay for the brief comforts of a stock standard interior of a hotel room. Additionally, its temporality does nothing to protect future sufferers of homelessness from the next pandemic – as history should inform us this will not be the last international pandemic.

Freedom of choice, movement, and agency during a time of pandemic is the antithesis of neoliberal forms of social control, as evidenced within homeless communities and is most essential when opportunity to eliminate class indifference and distinction presents itself. After all, at its onset the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a collective truth for humanity; we are all susceptible. Yet the structural inequalities that already existed managed to further exacerbate differences, not only in the experienced effects of the virus – which implicated those experiencing homelessness as more susceptible due to social breakdown and structural failings – but also during government authorised lockdown measures.

Had the urgency and panic been (retrospectively) handled better, structural failures could have been addressed and designs on federal funds could have produced longer-lasting benefits for many homeless areas and individuals, not just the select few.


Lauren Ensor is a Masters student in Conflict and Terrorism Studies at the University of Auckland.

Jesse Hession Grayman is a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His ethnographic research examines humanitarian and health interventions in Indonesia.


Works Cited

[1] C. Calhoun, “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)Order,” in Contemporary states of emergency; the politics of military and humanitarian inventions, New York, Zone Books, 2013, pp. 29-58.
[2] P. Cloke, J. May and S. Johnsen, Swept up lives?: Re-envisioning the homeless city, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
[3] A. Moran-Thomas, “The Creation of Emergency and Afterlife of Intervention: Reflections onGuinea Worm Eradication in Ghana,” in Medical Humanitarianism: Ethnographies of Practice, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 209-225.
[4] D. Fassin, “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life,” Public culture, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 499-520, 2007.
[5] World Health Organisation, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Situation Report – 51,” 11 March 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200311-sitrep-51-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=1ba62e57_10. [Accessed 18 April 2020].
[6] R. Muggah, Interviewee, Coronavirus in the city: A Q&A on the catastrophe confronting the urban poor. [Interview]. 1 April 2020.
[7] D. Mitchell, “Homelessness, American Style,” Urban Geography, vol. 32, no. 7, pp. 933-956, 2011.
[8] National Academies of Sciences, “Appendix B: The History of Homelessness in the United States,” in Permanent Supportive Housing: Evaluating the Evidence for Improving Health Outcomes Among People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness, National Academies Press, 2018.
[9] P. E. Groth, Living downtown: The history of residential hotels in the United States, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
[10] M. Fisher, Miller, W. L. N. and J. Selbin, “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State,” University of California, Berkeley, 2015.
[11] M. Henry, R. Watt, A. Mahathey, J. Ouellette and A. Sitler, “The 2019 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress,” The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Wasington D.C., 2020.
[12] A. M. &. W. J. D. Donley, “The health of the homeless,” Sociology Compass, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 1-12, 2018.
[13] Institute of Medicine (US). Committee on Health Care for Homeless People, Homelessness, health, and human needs, Washington D.C.: National Academies, 1988.
[14] K. A. T. a. J. D. W. Barrett A. Lee, “The New Homelessness Revisited,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 36, pp. 501-521, 2010.
[15] L. A. S. L. &. H. M. .. Goodman, “Homelessness as psychological trauma: Broadening perspectives,” American psychologist, vol. 46, no. 11, pp. 1219-1225, 1991.
[16] S. Ruddick, Young and Homeless in Hollywood, New York: Routledge, 1996.
[17] M. Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, New York: Verso Books, 2006.
[18] V. Adams, T. Van Hattum and D. English, “Chronic disaster syndrome: Displacement, disaster capitalism, and the eviction of the poor from New Orleans,” American ethnologist, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 615-636, 2009.
[19] G. Agamben and K. Attell, State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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