Homeless people living at two motels in Stanton may soon be back on the streets as county officials are expected to convert the motel rooms into long-term housing.

The current program, known as Project Roomkey, is a state program intended to quickly get people off the streets and into motel rooms. 

Now, officials are switching to another state program – Project Homekey, which is supposed to be permanent housing. 

But they’re running into the very problem these homeless assistance programs are supposed to solve: 

Where do people living at the Tahiti Motel and the Stanton Inn & Suites go now? 

The Stanton Inn & Suites, which the county is converting into homeless housing with support services. Credit: Olivia Lujan

“All participants remaining on site will need to be actively working on a housing plan as both buildings will need to be vacated by (the) end of August 2022,” Douglas Becht, the new director for the County of Orange’s Office of Care Coordination, told a Voice of OC reporter in an interview in February.

Yet shelter operators, housing and homeless advocates – even Becht, a top homelessness official for the county – all agree that finding affordable or supportive housing in Orange County is a Herculean task.

“We do know, in Orange County, we’re having a challenge finding affordable apartment units. We’re not completely blind to that.”

Douglas Becht, the new director for the County of Orange’s Office of Care Coordination

For years now, housing advocates have criticized Orange County for what they describe as an underproduction of homes that make it difficult for groups like Orange County United Way, a nonprofit aimed at helping the poor, find places for people to live.

[Read: Seeing Slow Homelessness Progress, Some Ask: What’s the Point to OC’s Point-in-Time Count?]

Advocates also say the scarcity of affordable housing is helping fuel the homelessness crisis in Orange County.

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center who advocates for homeless people, said the county is “very desperate” for permanent supportive housing.

“We need to have the available housing and we need to focus on getting housing quickly and efficiently,” she said in a Friday phone interview. “It is critical – if we want people to have an opportunity to survive and more importantly to thrive – to give people the dignity that comes with independent living.”

She also said the situation will only get worse if housing isn’t built.

Despite the challenge of finding people a home, Becht is confident that the most of the residents at hotels will be housed and many folks at the motels have vouchers for housing.

“(Orange County health care agency) is working to enhance the housing navigation services being provided onsite and transition all eligible program participants to a permanent housing option,” he said.

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One person currently living in one of the motels spoke to the Voice of OC on the condition of anonymity in fear of jeopardizing their chances for a permanent home and said those who don’t have vouchers have until the end March to be placed in a home.

They said American Family Housing, the current property management and supportive services provider at the motel, put residents on notice in January that the motel would be closing at the end of March to make way for the construction of permanent homes for the homeless.

“If they don’t find us a match by March 31, they’re putting us into emergency shelter … A lot of people don’t like that and then they’re back out on the street again, so it’s not really solving the problem.”

A resident at one of the Stanton Motels

They said they have been moved around various spots in the county by local service providers, but never into permanent housing and said groups like American Family Housing have a responsibility to see their work through and find people a permanent home.

The person’s concerns echo what scores of homeless people have told Voice of OC over the years – they keep getting shuffled around various shelters, housing situations and other services and haven’t been able to find a permanent place to live.

Christina Moua, a Program Manager for American Family Housing, and Milo Peinemenn, CEO for the group, did not respond to requests for comment. 

Becht, however, said in his interview that an initial deadline to vacate the motels was set for April 1, but later was changed.

“That seemed like a short deadline to us, so we joined with Jamboree to see if there was any way we could extend the deadline in order to help participants transition to permanent housing or more stable housing,” he said.

He said renovations to the exterior would start on April 1st.

“What will have to happen is starting May first, on the first of every month, Jamboree will need to have access to at least eight units in each site,” Becht said.

In a Monday email, he said there are 128 people at both hotels.

“The absolute earliest that anyone will be required to move out solely due to the conversion will be May 1st.  With that being said, over 75% of the individuals living at the two motels are already linked to a permanent housing opportunity,” Becht said in the email.

Weitzman said her understanding is that construction will start on April 1 and that some people will be forced out by then, but both motels won’t be fully emptied until August.

“It means that people who are there now, since they started getting this information a month or two ago have been living in a state of fear,” she said. “They are desperately trying to get matched with housing and trying to get a long term placement.”

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The motel conversions are a part of Project Homekey — state grant funded program to buy motels and turn them into permanent homes for homeless folks with onsite supportive services like mental health services.

During the first phase of the project, the County of Orange and Jamboree Housing — one of the largest affordable housing developers in OC — acquired the two motels in Stanton.

$10 million from the state is being used to convert the Stanton Inn and Suites on Katella Avenue, and $8 million is being used to transform the Tahiti Motel on Beach Boulevard.

The former Tahiti motel in Stanton, which the county is converting into housing for homeless people. May 25, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Other cities like Anaheim and Costa Mesa are also looking to convert motels to housing for the homeless.

[Read: OC Cities Increasingly Look to Motels to Help House Homeless People]

Weitzman said it’s a “huge disappointment and mistake” that the county, American Family Housing and Jamboree Housing will be displacing people amid the transition.

“It is not uncommon for the county to take steps that displace people. Unfortunately, it’s the type of thing that has happened before and probably will happen again,” she said.

Weitzman said there is no reason why the money being used to keep people at the motels is not being used to place them at other motels.

She said the motel residents moved in because they were promised help and a place to stay until they could be put in a permanent living situation.

“To see the county not following through on that promise, and other providers involved allowing the county to not follow through on that promise is a really frustrating thing.”

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center who advocates for homeless people.

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The motel conversions come amid increased state pressure on cities to address California’s housing shortage.

Homes in Orange County. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In the last couple of years, city officials in OC have pushed back hard on state mandated housing goals that would have city council members zone for over 180,000 homes in Orange County over roughly the next eight years – over 75,000 of which have to be for very low or low income families.

Their efforts have failed with many cities across the county adopting their housing plans despite calling for more local control on housing decisions.

[Read: New Housing Plans Pit OC Cities Against Sacramento Over State Mandated Housing Goals]

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Becht said he expects a handful of people might not be housed by August and that the county will continue to work with those people who don’t get placed in a home.

“Whoever’s left by Aug. 31, we’re fully committed to making sure that they will transition to somewhere that is suitable and appropriate for them as they continue to work towards permanent housing,” Becht said.

Meanwhile, the number of people living and dying on the streets are rising on a monthly and annual basis, according to Father Dennis Kriz, of St.. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton.

Kriz, who regularly contributes to Voice of OC’s community opinion page, wrote that 46 people died on the streets in January – surpassing the 40 dead from last January. 

Weitzman said the current motel situation could add more homeless deaths.

“Every time that there’s a step taken that’s going to displace people who we are currently connected with, people who are engaged with a provider and healthcare. It’s a mistake,” she said.

“It’s going to put lives at risk.”

Brandon Pho contributed reporting for this story.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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