Why did homeless people die in an L.A. hotel during COVID?


Days earlier than her dying, Kathy Vandiver appeared to be faring higher than her daughters had seen in years.

After years of dependancy and wrestle, she had gotten off the streets of the San Fernando Valley and right into a resort room by way of Project Roomkey. She was speaking about getting an house quickly; she was bringing over buddies to say hi there on a video chat. She had a loving boyfriend. She had plans, as soon as a examine got here by way of, to go to household in Illinois.

She appeared wholesome and glad, her daughter Karla Benitez thought. Just like the mom she remembered as a child.

“How might she simply die like that?” Benitez requested.

Vandiver, 51, was one in every of at the least eight individuals who died whereas they have been dwelling on the Airtel Plaza Resort, in line with knowledge supplied by the Los Angeles County coroner and the Los Angeles Homeless Companies Authority. Through the pandemic, a whole lot of homeless folks have been housed on the sprawling resort and convention heart exterior Van Nuys Airport by way of Undertaking Roomkey, a authorities program aimed on the weak inhabitants.

The deceased have been younger and never so younger, Black and white, native and transplant. A number of misplaced their lives to heroin or methamphetamine on the resort, in line with coroner findings. Vandiver died of an intracerebral hemorrhage after being discovered unconscious in her room and brought to the hospital, although medical experts discovered that medical situations and methamphetamine use have been “contributing situations” to her dying.

One dying on the resort was labeled as pure — a 41-year-old man discovered to have died of coronary artery illness. And one participant died of pure causes away from the location, in line with LAHSA data.

A car drives by on the street in front of a hotel complex

The Airtel Plaza, a sprawling resort and convention heart exterior Van Nuys Airport, homes homeless folks as a Undertaking Roomkey website.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Occasions)

What occurred on the resort is a mirrored image, in some methods, of the dire vulnerability of the homeless individuals who went there, and the maladies and addictions that may be exacerbated by dwelling on the streets.

However the dying toll additionally raises questions on whether or not suppliers might higher defend folks as they transfer from the streets into resort rooms and different shelter. L.A. County’s high physician responding to homelessness mentioned it additionally underscores the shortage of areas the place folks with critical psychological and bodily illnesses can go for care in Los Angeles.

“We want a spot for individuals who aren’t simply bodily unwell,” mentioned Dr. Heidi Behforouz, medical director for the county Housing for Well being program. “It’s for the people who find themselves traumatized, or within the midst of substance use dysfunction, or are having a psychological well being second, and simply want some wraparound consideration and stabilization. Our system is lacking that.”

The Airtel is just not the one Undertaking Roomkey resort the place folks have died. As of this spring, 49 deaths had been recorded amongst individuals who have been dwelling in Roomkey resorts, out of the 1000’s of individuals collaborating within the countywide program, in line with LAHSA statistics. Nearly all of these deaths occurred on-site. LAHSA didn’t present a breakdown of their causes of dying past whether or not they have been categorized as pure, unnatural or undetermined.

The Van Nuys resort, which had the best variety of deaths, was additionally one of many largest websites in this system, with a mean of almost 300 folks bedding down there nightly. Its per capita dying fee was larger than common amongst Undertaking Roomkey resorts, though not the best in this system, a Occasions evaluation discovered.

Eliel Fuentes mentioned that earlier than he and Kathy Vandiver obtained into the Airtel, her well being had already been struggling. The 2 had met at a Little Caesars three years in the past and never been aside since, he mentioned.

Close-up of a man holding a cellphone with a photo of him and his partner on it

Eli Fuentes shows a photograph of himself and his accomplice, Kathy Vandiver.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Occasions)

They’d been dwelling in a Van Nuys motel when the pandemic started, however Fuentes misplaced his job in a restaurant and so they ended up dwelling alongside the Metrolink tracks. It had been particularly tough on Vandiver, who suffered from coronary heart issues, he mentioned. Ironic for a girl whose coronary heart was so large, Fuentes mentioned, that she would give away no matter she had.

On the Airtel, “we have been very glad collectively,” Fuentes mentioned.

Undertaking Roomkey is a statewide program launched in spring 2020 to supply rooms to the homeless folks most weak to hospitalization or dying from COVID-19. On the program’s peak, town and county have been sheltering greater than 4,300 folks, but it surely was scaled again to fewer than 2,000 this winter amid considerations that the federal subsidy would finish.

This spring, nonetheless, a number of resorts have been reopened and new ones have been leased. The Airtel was initially opened by the county as a Roomkey website underneath one operator, closed on the finish of March amid considerations about managing its huge website, then reopened by town in April underneath a brand new operator.

Members of a brand new group, Unhoused Tenants In opposition to Carceral Housing, have demanded modifications to this system, complaining that Undertaking Roomkey individuals have been subjected to restrictive curfews, harassment, intrusions on their privateness and punitive guidelines at websites that they likened to jails. One girl mentioned a good friend died by suicide after struggling isolation in a Roomkey resort.

Former Airtel residents interviewed by The Occasions had a variety of complaints about their experiences, many revolving round their therapy by program employees. Abra Marshall, who complained to a state company about being groped by a safety guard, mentioned she had suffered a miscarriage on the Airtel due to stress and harassment.

One other former Airtel resident, Jennifer Blake, mentioned the employees had uncared for to ship a nurse to examine on her, as promised, after she measured her personal blood strain and located it was spiking.

A woman, surrounded by other people, speaks into news microphones

Jessica Mendez, also referred to as “Queen,” speaks Could 19 at an L.A. information convention held by Unhoused Tenants In opposition to Carceral Housing to denounce punitive guidelines and demand humane therapy within the Undertaking Roomkey program.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Occasions)

“How can … that many individuals die in a spot the place they’re alleged to be caring in your well-being?” Blake requested at a Could information convention on the steps of Metropolis Corridor. Blake, who moved into one other Roomkey resort after staying on the Airtel, concluded her remarks by saying, “To inform the reality, I might be higher off if I had stayed on the streets.”

Amongst those that knew Vandiver was Paul Learn, co-founder of the homeless help group Ardour. He didn’t fault this system operators on the resort for the deaths, saying that if the homeless individuals who discovered shelter on the Airtel had been left in secluded encampments, “extra in all probability would have died.”

Within the Sepulveda Basin, the place a lot of them got here from, “there’s fires. There’s flooding. There’s a lot illness. It’s robust for EMTs and assist to get down there, whether or not it’s flooding or an overdose or they’re sick,” Learn mentioned.

After this system opened, emergency medical technicians confirmed as much as the Airtel, on common, almost each different day, in line with L.A. Hearth Division data. Final July — the identical month that two males died on the resort — EMTs have been despatched to the Airtel almost two dozen occasions, together with 4 visits on the identical day.

Homeless folks sheltering on the Airtel died at a reasonably larger fee than unsheltered folks throughout the San Fernando Valley final 12 months, The Occasions’ evaluation discovered. However Undertaking Roomkey was supposed to focus on the folks at biggest threat throughout the pandemic, complicating such comparisons.

“We are able to by no means measure what number of lives are saved as a result of persons are indoors,” LAHSA Govt Director Heidi Marston mentioned. However the vulnerability of these residents underscores that, in some circumstances, “there’s a want for a special form of wraparound healthcare companies to be made out there to of us.”


Kenneth Colato was higher generally known as Rabbit to folks dwelling within the distant reaches of the Sepulveda Basin, the place lush greenery runs right into a concrete-covered river mattress. Richard Silva mentioned he had met Colato years in the past when he grew to become homeless and was dwelling within the secluded space generally known as “the Bamboos.”

Colato wasn’t “actually outgoing, however for those who knew him, then you definately have been in,” Silva mentioned. “He would do something for you.”

Colato was born and raised within the San Fernando Valley, had been out and in of jail, and lengthy struggled with dependancy. He informed The Occasions final 12 months that he first tried heroin as a 15-year-old whereas locked in a juvenile detention heart. His physique was emblazoned by gang tattoos that he had collected throughout his time in jail.

He lived underneath the elevated Orange Line busway, the place he had arrange a mattress and couches and would generally maintain court docket, cracking jokes or enjoying the drums. “I don’t need to stay like this,” he told The Times whereas he was dwelling within the basin. “However I don’t know every other means.”

Silva remembered him serving to folks transfer their belongings or seek out a stolen bike. Generally Rabbit can be strolling canines, “and it’s not even his canine,” Silva mentioned.

“He’d provide the shirt off his again,” Silva mentioned. “He would show you how to out and never even anticipate something in return.”

When the pandemic started, Colato and others dwelling within the basin have been relocated to the Airtel. In March, he was discovered useless in his room, in line with homeless individuals who knew him. The coroner had not launched a report on his dying as of late June.

Silva mentioned he broke into tears when he heard the information. “I haven’t cried about too many individuals,” he mentioned. “He’ll be nicely missed.”


L.A. Household Housing Chief Govt Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, whose nonprofit was the primary to function this system on the Airtel, mentioned that many homeless folks had come to the Van Nuys resort straight from encampments, most of them alongside the rugged Sepulveda Basin, “a inhabitants that was deeply, deeply faraway from companies,” she mentioned.

Once they arrived on the resort, some have been fighting dependancy. Like many homeless service suppliers, L.A. Household Housing mentioned it follows a coverage of hurt discount — sensible methods that intention to attenuate the dangerous results of drug use. Medicine weren’t allowed on-site, however folks weren’t ejected from this system for breaking that rule, she mentioned.

Klasky-Gamer mentioned that Tarzana Therapy Facilities had staffers on the Airtel and that lives had been saved by distributing Narcan, a nasal spray that delivers naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose.

“We imagine there have been seemingly fewer deaths from this group of individuals whereas they lived on the Airtel than there would have been had they continued to stay within the Basin this previous 12 months,” she mentioned in an electronic mail.

However some unhoused folks staying on the Airtel didn’t know they might ask for Narcan, mentioned Carla Orendorff, a Road Watch L.A. organizer lively within the Valley. Orendorff mentioned that when the activist group was distributing the nasal spray, some residents mistakenly believed it was unlawful to own.

Rebeca Chavez, a former resident of the resort, mentioned {that a} good friend who had requested for Narcan one night on the resort was informed to return again within the morning to take a category first.

“They’d packing containers and packing containers of Narcan downstairs. If there had been one or two packing containers in each room, it might have been prevented,” Chavez mentioned of the overdose deaths.

Unhoused Tenants In opposition to Carceral Housing has included, amongst its calls for, “clear and quick access” to Narcan.

Klasky-Gamer mentioned that stocking rooms with the spray or leaving it out for residents wouldn’t encourage folks to get coaching on tips on how to use it safely, a “greatest observe” for distributing it. She mentioned, nonetheless, that Airtel residents had nonetheless been supplied Narcan even when they refused such coaching.

Orendorff mentioned the clearing of encampments additionally broke up a number of the acquainted networks that individuals relied on for security. “Individuals examine on one another very often in encampments. They know one thing isn’t proper in a short time,” Orendorff mentioned. Within the resorts, “folks weren’t in a position to examine in on one another in the identical means.”

The Occasions heard from former residents {that a} Undertaking Roomkey participant was not discovered promptly after his dying. Klasky-Gamer mentioned that in a single occasion, nursing staffers contracted by the county to do wellness checks had knocked on a door and gotten no reply, however had been afraid to enter the room for a complete day as a result of the person had a pit bull.

L.A. Household Housing staffers ended up entering into themselves, she mentioned, after his buddies mentioned they hadn’t seen him in two days.


‘I assumed all the things was going good for him. He was a pleasant, handsome boy. He simply took the mistaken path.’

Invoice Silvers on his son, Ryan Radoff, who died on the Airtel

Drug dependancy had derailed the lifetime of Ryan Radoff, 38, who died on the Airtel in August, his father mentioned.

Invoice Silvers recounted jobs that Radoff had misplaced and mentioned he had picked up a felony report from “silly issues he did.” Silvers mentioned he tried to assist his son by providing up a house and, later, a brand new tent and provides.

When he was youthful, “he did all the things with me,” Silvers remembered. “We labored on automobiles collectively. We had boats. All the things was actually good. His buddies came to visit and so they have been swimming in our pool. He had birthdays. All the things was regular…. He had all the things. I don’t know what he was considering.”

After Radoff died, Silvers mentioned he realized from a receipt in his son’s pockets that Radoff had gone downstairs the night time of his dying and brought out $200 from an ATM on the resort.

Silvers mentioned he was informed that the money wasn’t there when Radoff died early within the morning on the Airtel, the reason for dying finally listed as “results of methamphetamine and heroin.”

Radoff’s girlfriend referred to as Silvers crying the following day, after he had already heard the information from authorities. She had stumbled over Radoff’s physique round 3 a.m. when she obtained as much as go to the toilet, in line with a coroner’s report obtained by The Occasions. Somebody on the resort tried to revive him with naloxone, the report mentioned. Paramedics tried too. It didn’t work.

On the Airtel, “I assumed all the things was going good for him,” Silvers mentioned. “He was a pleasant, handsome boy. He simply took the mistaken path.”

His ashes have been scattered at sea off San Clemente, together with these of his grandmother, who had died two weeks earlier in a care facility amid a COVID-19 outbreak. Silvers saved somewhat bottle of ashes and despatched it to his son’s girlfriend.


Whether or not on the streets or in resorts, one of many drivers of lethal overdoses is utilizing medication alone, mentioned Darren Willett, director of the Heart for Hurt Discount run by Homeless Well being Care Los Angeles. Willett mentioned he wasn’t assessing what occurred at any website, however “the criminality related to drug use creates the will to cover irrespective of the place you might be.”

“The extra snug folks really feel about sharing the truth that they’re utilizing medication, the extra entry they need to naloxone and the extra ready they’re to make use of within the firm of others, you’re going to see lowered overdose charges,” he mentioned.

One other acknowledged threat issue for overdoses, Willett mentioned, is mixing medication or attempting extra highly effective ones. Karen Lewis, a Undertaking Roomkey participant on the Airtel, mentioned deaths coincided with “a giant change from folks doing heroin to doing fentanyl.”

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Earlier than she moved off the streets and into the Airtel, she mentioned, “I administered Narcan to in all probability eight folks. That was the start of everyone switching.” On the resort, she added, “the sellers have been very handy.”

Fentanyl drove a spike in deaths of homeless folks throughout L.A. County final spring, a county Public Well being Division report discovered. However medical examinations of people that died of overdoses on the Airtel didn’t detect fentanyl, in line with coroner stories out there as of early June.

Kim Olsen, a board member with the mutual support group West Valley Properties Sure, mentioned the rationale so many died on the Airtel was “the identical cause they’re dying on the road.” (The main causes of dying amongst homeless folks, in line with a L.A. County study launched this 12 months, have been drug overdoses and coronary coronary heart illness.)

At one level, Olsen mentioned, she drove somebody to the Airtel whereas an ambulance was bringing somebody out on a gurney. “We have been each shocked,” Olsen mentioned. Nonetheless, “it didn’t discourage this particular person from checking in. Truthfully, it was a highly regarded day and dwelling exterior was a far better risk for somebody with medical situations.”

What troubled her, she mentioned, was that “if we had a bunch of rich folks on the Beverly Hills Resort overdose, there can be an investigation. We’d try to discover who was promoting that. And we might try to cease them.”

A Los Angeles Police Division spokesperson mentioned its narcotics division had not investigated medication on the Airtel.


The telephone name from California gutted Bernetta Brown Simpson.

Her 41-year-old son, Andre, had been deeply clever and bookish as a teen, a fan of science fiction and vampire novels. When he graduated from faculty, he had needed to go to Korea to show English.

Then it started — what his mom referred to as a “psychological break.” His considering grew to become unusual, paranoid and troubled. He started to push away from his household. He left New York for California. Perhaps, his sister thought, he needed to be somebody new.

Andre Michael Brown was discovered useless on a February afternoon in his room on the Airtel, the reason for dying listed as coronary artery illness. Throughout a welfare examine by somebody working on the resort, he was discovered “unresponsive and wedged between the mattress and a nightstand,” in line with a coroner report.

Earlier than he died, Brown had been laborious to succeed in for his household on the East Coast. Simpson lamented that “we didn’t even know the place he was half the time.”

“You could possibly name him and depart messages, however he would choose and select when he needed to talk to someone,” his sister, Adreian Simmons, mentioned. “You don’t know what’s occurring. And there was no person we knew on the market.”

After his mom heard that he had died within the Van Nuys resort, her pained ideas circled again to his journal. She puzzled the place it was and whether or not it might clarify something concerning the dying of her son. As of late June, the household had not acquired any journal from authorities.


Caring for homeless folks might be particularly difficult as a result of they typically have illnesses which have gone untreated for lengthy durations of time, mentioned Behforouz, the medical director for L.A. County’s Housing for Well being program.

Through the pandemic, her workforce has run a number of quarantine and isolation resorts, that are separate from the Undertaking Roomkey websites. When an individual was admitted, a workforce that features a nurse, case managers and a social employee assessed their degree of trauma and want, which “might assist us perceive the depth of the companies they wanted.”

If somebody was particularly weak — together with drug customers liable to overdose — “you bought checked up on rather more ceaselessly, and for those who didn’t reply the door, we knocked down the door or used our grasp key,” Behforouz mentioned.

Nobody died of an overdose on the websites overseen by her workforce, Behforouz mentioned, a undeniable fact that she attributed to the excessive staffing and intensive evaluation at these websites. Undertaking Roomkey has been an extremely precious instrument to get folks off the road, she mentioned, but it surely merely doesn’t have the identical degree of staffing or screening as websites that had their companies plan designed by Behforouz’s workforce.

Jeremiah Curry, who beforehand labored for L.A. Household Housing on the Airtel, mentioned that a number of the folks employed to work on the Undertaking Roomkey website weren’t correctly educated or delicate to the wants of a weak inhabitants.

“Lots of people simply noticed it as being a simple job. It wasn’t a simple job. You’re accountable for folks’s lives,” together with folks with underlying well being issues and psychological sickness, Curry mentioned.

“They didn’t take note of the telltale indicators of what was occurring,” he mentioned.

Klasky-Gamer mentioned dozens of latest workers have been employed to work on the Airtel, including that though L.A. Household Housing had employed some staffers who have been new to the sphere for Undertaking Roomkey, all these employed had “a ardour to assist folks” and have been supplied data on trauma-informed care, hurt discount and naloxone, amongst different subjects.

A coaching video coated data on working with the inhabitants, she mentioned. Moreover the L.A. Household Housing workforce, there have been others on-site, together with nursing and safety employees contracted by the county.

This system run by L.A. Household Housing on the Airtel was finally shut down by the county, partly as a result of excessive prices for sustaining safety on a sprawling website with a number of entry factors.

When the location reopened for Undertaking Roomkey in April — this time by way of town — it was surrounded with a fence. Orlando Ward, public affairs director for the brand new operator, Volunteers of America, mentioned the fence was meant to make sure a “managed entry” in response to safety points.

Chavez, who as soon as lived within the Airtel, has since moved right into a Canoga Park motel that was transformed into housing. She felt good about the place she was, lastly extra steady after years of homelessness. Nobody, she mentioned, is made for the streets.

However she nonetheless discovered it laborious to speak concerning the individuals who died on the Airtel.

“To see them there someday and gone the following — it’s nonetheless form of laborious for me,” she mentioned.


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