Project Homekey at work in Lake Tahoe

A home is key: Homeless population decreases in South Tahoe


“Nobody deserves to die outside.”

Cheyenne Purrington, executive director of the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, makes over and over again.

South Lake Tahoe has seen a significant drop in its homeless population over the past year. Thanks to Project Homekey and the efforts of the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, most of South Lake Tahoe’s most vulnerable population now have roofs over their heads.

Project Homekey is a state program that allows organizations to convert motels into long-term housing.

According to the state’s website, it was born out of Project Roomkey, a program launched as part of the state’s COVID-19 response to “provide non-congregate shelter options for people experiencing homelessness, protect human life, and minimize strain on health care system capacity.”

Using funding from this program allowed TCH to purchase three motels in town, the Red Lodge, the El Nido Motel and the Bear’s Den, outright.

When TCH was first founded, one of its major focuses was the Warm Room, which they set up each winter to provide temporary, emergency shelter for the city’s homeless.

“It’s important to talk about the difference between temporary emergency shelter and long-term housing services,” Purrington said. “What Project Homekey has allowed us to do is rather than having a Band-Aid and rather than having a shelter that was just first-come, first-serve, we now serve the most vulnerable in our community.”

TCH’s three properties provide about 70 units of long-term, affordable housing paired with on-site supportive services. In addition, the Red Lodge location has a Stabilization Suite which provides private rooms on a temporary basis, for highly vulnerable individuals in crisis to stabilize and prepare for housing placement. During their short-term stays, clients work with case management staff to connect with healthcare providers, gather identity documentation, access income and benefits, and plan for long-term housing. The Stabilization Suite enables clients to get intensive support on a temporary basis and is an important component of TCH’s strategy to end homelessness.

The Red Lodge location serves as TCH’s main headquarters and offers a range of services and resources all in one central location. The front lobby is stocked with basic resources such as hygiene supplies, warm coats and hats, light snacks, and water bottles. Clients can access phones, computers, wireless internet, and printers, and TCH staff provide assistance in completing job and housing applications, creating and printing resumes, and searching for apartments. Clients can also use accessible restrooms or sign up to take a hot shower, which helps many clients maintain their employment while they save up and search for housing.

TCH works closely with strategic partners to provide critical resources to both housed and unhoused clients. Bombas provides shipments of warm socks and Barton Foundation makes multiple deliveries of food donations each week, through a partnership with Whole Foods. TCH also works with local partners to make referrals for additional services, including Tahoe Youth & Family Services, Live Violence Free, El Dorado County Behavioral Health, and Barton Health Community Clinic.

Purrington said there is a trope that people want to remain homeless but she said in most cases, the only other option is a shelter, where people are all sleeping on mats on a floor, they can’t bring pets, they don’t have privacy and they have to wait in line for the bathroom. That’s not a great option.

But being offered housing is a different situation. The majority of the people experiencing homelessness want their own house.

Purrington also said that the vulnerable end up using a lot of emergency services, whether it’s calls to the police and fire departments or ambulance rides and stays in the emergency room. One stay in the ER could cost about $10,000 while TCH to provide long-term housing for a person experiencing homelessness for a year costs about $10,000.

The South Lake Tahoe Police Department had a significant drop in calls related to homelessness. In 2020 there were 1,159 to just 796 in 2021.

Purrington said ending homelessness isn’t just the humanitarian thing to do but it’s also an economic investment in the community.

“Housing is really the best cure for homelessness and it’s really housing with services, so that’s what we call supportive housing,” Purrington said. “Supportive services at the location where people get affordable housing.”

Even with the economic benefit of erasing homelessness, it’s important to not forget that homeless people are still people.

“It’s horrific and inhuman to allow people to freeze to death in a community with so much wealth,” Purrington said.

Project Homekey has allowed them to shift focus to getting people long-term housing and they’ve seen success.

In 2019, the Homeless Point-In-Time (PIT) Count identified about 110 local residents experiencing homelessness unsheltered or in a shelter. The most recent PIT Count conducted in February 2022 identified fewer than 20 individuals. That’s a significant decrease, especially during a pandemic.

Approaching housing as a healthcare issue has helped Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless end homelessness for specific subpopulations, including Veterans. Purrington said about 16% of clients living in Project Homekey are veterans. Currently, there are no homeless Veterans in South Lake Tahoe, an important milestone achieved by only one other California city.

The Bear’s Den is currently being used by Heavenly Mountain Resort for employee housing but this summer, TCH will be able to rehab those rooms to make them acceptable for long-term housing. That will provide an additional 20 housing units, which could essentially end homelessness in South Lake.

But it’s not just about putting roofs over heads. TCH has also been working, with the help of other organizations in town, to address the causes of homelessness and prevent their clients from again becoming homeless.

“A lot of people think homelessness is an effect of someone’s poor choices or personal failings and a lot of what we see is actually system failures and abuse and trauma,” Purrington said. “Those things, when you treat them early, it’s like with any health condition, homelessness has a lot of connections to health and we see a lot of folks with backgrounds of trauma, backgrounds of health conditions, backgrounds of not being able to access services. So, one of the biggest things we do is just reduce barriers and create connection to those resources.”

For example, Purrington said 20% of clients living in Project Homekey are veterans. She’s interacted with veterans who are conflicted about their service so they feel guilty about receiving veteran benefits. So they work with those clients to overcome trauma associated with their service.

Mason Balison is a great example of the success of TCH. Balison moved to South Lake in March 2020.

He was living in a van with an abusive partner, so between that and COVID-19 hitting, the van was not a safe place for Balison to be living.

“I came to South Lake and I’m living in my van and I’m telling myself everything is going to be okay, I’ll be able to shower, I’ll be able to do this and that but everything was shut down,” Balison said. “So, I wasn’t able to do anything, I wasn’t able to take care of myself.”

Balison became a client of TCH, which allowed him access to the Warm Room and showers there. After the Warm Room ended, Balison was connected with the Youth and Family Resource Center. They gave him six months of rental assistance and found him housing.

TCH has a policy of not hiring former clients until they’ve been successfully living on their own for six months. So, once Balison’s six months were up, they hired him as a navigation specialist.

While Balison didn’t through Project Homekey himself, he works on site at the Red Lodge to help clients.

Balison’s story begins long before coming to South Lake. He was raised in Alaska in an abusive home by a mom who didn’t want him. When he was 18-years-old, he struck out on his own. He lived on the cold streets, drinking and doing drugs to stay warm, before making his way down the west coast before ending up in South Lake.

Those lived experiences help Balison relate to TCH’s clients in a way most people can’t.

While Balison did come from somewhere and became homeless here, Purrington said that’s not a common story.

“Eighty-five percent of the folks that are experiencing homelessness here became homeless here, they’re from here, they lived their lives here,” Purrington said.

With the high cost of housing in South Lake, it’s easier than people imagine to become homeless.

“If you’re making $1,100 a month and paying $900 in rent, that only gives you $200 leftover for everything,” Purrington said.

“If you receive $1,100 a month on a fixed income and pay $900 in rent, that only leaves $200 leftover for everything else – food, gas, medications, savings, everything.” Purrington said. For clients staying in Project Homekey housing, they pay 30% of their income towards rent. That enables them to afford rent without cutting back on nutrition or medical care, and ultimately, stay sustainably housed.

Project Homekey has proven successful in South Lake Tahoe, but more effort is needed to fill the larger affordability gap and prevent homelessness for people who are currently rent burdened or need social services. Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless continues to tackle these issues with local partners including Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, City of South Lake Tahoe, County of El Dorado, Tahoe Prosperity Center, and other organizations focused on preventing poverty and homelessness.