Acadiana's hotel shelters wind down as Covid and housing insecurity persist

The ARCH network of hotels housed people as an alternative to conventional shelters. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Pillows are in short supply at the Lafayette warehouse operated by the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing. But not pillowcases. Workers with ARCH have gathered and stocked home necessities for dozens of families delivered into stable housing after months-long stints in otherwise vacant hotels and motels.

Hotels across the country were pressed into duty as non-congregate shelters (NCS) during the pandemic, a strategy housing advocates say has been effective and is still needed as the pandemic continues. However, despite new rules that would put the cost burden fully on the federal government, Louisiana’s NCS hotel programs are winding down, including Acadiana’s, the state’s largest. State officials cite cost and an unclear level of need, a debate that surfaces tension about defining homelessness itself.

At one time, nearly 750 people were booked into a network of hotels in Acadiana. Conventional, dormitory-style shelter space was scarce even before the coronavirus pandemic made congregating a hazard. Covid was kept mostly at bay among the state’s homeless population. Up front, the strategy worked.

“The very least thing we need to be doing for people during a pandemic is making sure they have adequate opportunity to isolate and quarantine as needed,” says Leigh Rachal, ARCH’s executive director. “That’s just the very least we should be offering as a community in my view.”

The program has been an effective public health solution; it was under that purview that public health officials signed off on it last year, thinking the operation would be temporary. ARCH now plans to use hotels as vaccination platforms, as outreach workers have had an easier time reaching and helping people who moved into hotel rooms. Access to a shower and a sink can be life changing. But ARCH clientele also signed up for benefits. Many signed up for Social Security or Medicaid, secured their stimulus payments or even got jobs while living in hotels. Such effective case management, it seems, is made possible by the stability and dignity supplied by a room of one’s own.

ARCH tapped other federal funds to hire case managers for the first time in its history, and launched a relatively large-scale rapid rehousing effort. Since September, the program has moved six to 12 people each week into permanent housing, a total of 112 households. (Housing workers count “households,” not people.) The pace has declined with the housing supply, Rachal says. Evacuees from hurricanes Laura and Delta are renting up the low-income housing stock in the greater Lafayette area, which was already tight.

To be sure, hotel rooms don’t work for everyone. People suffering with severe mental illness struggle to adapt to the independent living space. Some have been moved out of the ARCH hotels, ultimately winding up back on the street. There have been deaths, too.

Federal policy continues to emphasize housing during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention again extended an ongoing moratorium on evictions through June 30.

And days in, the Biden administration rewrote the rules on reimbursing NCS operations during the pandemic. The federal government will now pick up 100% of the tab on these programs retroactively, up from the 75% cost share that is typical of federal disaster programs.

But the Louisiana Housing Corporation, ARCH’s state partner for the program, is currently out millions on the program, and has fronted the costs with what it says is limited available cash. As of this week, it had incurred $47 million in costs. FEMA, the federal funder, owes LHC roughly $24 million.

So far, LHC reps say they’ve paid out about $5 million on the ARCH program, not counting spending to house families during hurricanes and the February freeze. ARCH has 217 people currently booked in the hotels. The bills keep piling in, and cash flow has been an issue, a notable problem among programs funded through federal reimbursement. Hoteliers were not always paid on time, but nevertheless viewed the funds as a lifeline when occupancy plummeted.

Funding is a big factor here, says Noah Patton of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Few states are taking the feds up on the financial backstop, mostly because of the red tape associated with federal disaster funding. Outside of California, which stood up the nation’s largest NCS program, hotel programs are in limbo.

“There’s a large administrative burden that goes along with [obtaining federal disaster funds]. I wouldn’t say it’s an easy thing to do. With innovative thinking and the will to do it, it can be accomplished,” Patton says.

The Biden order applies to any government agency funding NCS facilities and, under certain conditions, will pay 50% of the costs up front. Louisiana is set to receive $3.4 billion from the latest stimulus package direct to its budget and another $1.8 billion will go to local governments. Lafayette Consolidated Government will pull down $83.5 million between both parish and city government allocations. But the stimulus windfall may not be a funding solution that governments take advantage of because it remains unclear what kind of strings will be attached to the dollars, and federal reimbursement programs are bureaucratically thorny to avoid duplicating benefits. Governments can’t pay for a program with one pot of federal dollars and then ask the federal government to pay them back with another. Offsetting deficits, however, does in theory free up other government funds. And housing advocates nevertheless say there’s money to make this happen but contend that officials are choosing not to make it a priority.

“The big takeaway is our policymakers, our elected officials, don’t put housing first even when it’s their responsibility, like it is for the Louisiana Housing Corporation. That’s outrageous,” says Andreanicia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA. Morris points to the disastrous rollout of the state’s rent assistance program, which was slammed with demand but still only trickled dollars out.

To some extent, the hotels fall into the gap between disaster response and long-term housing solutions. The Biden order ends in September. For the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness — the state’s conduit for federal disaster money — what ARCH and similar agencies are asking for goes beyond the sphere of disaster recovery and into the purview of housing solutions. In short, it’s not GOHSEP’s job to resolve systemic homelessness or housing instability.

“We’re not allowed, whether it be a natural disaster or anything, to just run unlimited shelter operations. There are certain points that FEMA expects us to hit,” says Mike Steele, GOHSEP’s communications director.

Based on its 2020 point-in-time count, performed each year to track the number of people experiencing homelessness, Louisiana’s Covid NCS program provided enough shelter for its entire homeless population, according to Gordon Levine, who manages continuum of care operations for LHC. Unsheltered homelessness in Louisiana had declined over the last few years and hit a floor before 2020, he says. Housing workers are now dealing with both acute and systemic problems. It’s a limbo complicated by diverging opinions on addressing homelessness generally, much less the government’s role in supplying housing as a public health response.

“We're really at an inflection point right now where … many other people are asking where do we go from here, what level of needs still exists in our pandemic response which is part of, but also distinct from, our general statewide homelessness response,” LHC’s Levine says.

What qualifies as “need” is a critical sticking point here. Since the beginning of the pandemic, workers in the housing space have warned of a looming, but yet unmaterialized, wave of need. For the time being, the crush has been mounting as bills go unpaid. But eviction moratoriums continue and rent assistance has grown.

A rainbow appears above a back section of rooms at a motel; when this photo was taken Sept. 15, updates were underway so the property could take in more homeless guests. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Citing hundreds sheltered in hotels during the February freeze, ARCH estimates 500 households in Acadiana remain unsheltered, a staggering figure. That number includes families who are doubled up with friends and people living in cars or vacant buildings. But LHC has targeted homelessness based on criteria laid out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which applies a strict filter to who is homeless and gets aid.

Indeed, ARCH has been more aggressive than other local agencies set up to manage and aid people in housing crises — called CoCs or “continuum of care” agencies. And at its peak, ARCH booked more people, 754, into its Covid NCS program than New Orleans, 619, despite an overall lower rate of homelesness, a fact leveled as criticism by LHC in response to Straight News Online’s questions about its reasons for not extending or expanding the program. New Orleans stopped its NCS program altogether in November, and has similarly faced criticism for not resuming the program in light of the Biden order. When it comes to federal reimbursement, whether those helped really need help is a crucial determination.

But the push and pull between on-the-ground providers and government funders is typical of disaster response, the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Patton says. And providers like ARCH are responding to the need in front of them.

“Now would not be the time to get in a full-scale discussion about the meaning of homelessness,” Patton says. “We’ll have plenty of time to figure that out after we beat COVID-19.”

However unclear the need or philosophical the dispute, there are nonetheless more unhoused people than shelter in Acadiana. LHC recognizes the circumstance generally but says ARCH has insufficiently documented it; the state agency says it continues to add high-risk cases when necessary to the NCS program. Furthermore, LHC argues, the program will need to end eventually, and it has questioned whether ARCH can move its current population of roughly 200 into permanent housing. Rachal says even at six to nine households a week, she’s on pace to transition everyone in the hotels to housing by September.

In December, ARCH had asked for $1.3 million to transition another 300 unsheltered people through hotels into permanent housing between January and September of this year, including costs for case management. Were it to receive funding to put that many up, ARCH likely would not be able to move that expanded hotel population out by September, meaning someone other than FEMA will have to pick up the tab. 

What no one disputes is that public agencies and nonprofits alike have been stretched to the limit. While it’s uncertain when, the immediate disaster will end. And that remains a key sticking point: outlook. The pandemic, after all, isn’t over.

“It seems like it’s still important to do it even if we can’t find the housing solution on the other end,” Rachal says of moving people into hotels, despite the limited runway on federal funding. “That is not a pandemic response; it’s a homelessness response. Those are different things. Both good goals, but different things.”