Davon Brown, donning a gray blazer and tinted sunglasses, strolls into the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles. The world-famous recording artist is in town for a COVID-19 benefit concert that will be live-streamed to his millions of adoring fans, and he needs a room—at least, that’s what they rehearsed.
Brown, a former college basketball player turned professional model, has been homeless since June. He’s arrived at the Ritz on May 1 with a goal in mind: get a room and stay there. As May Day protests unfolded across the country to push for tenant protections and rent strikes amid the novel coronavirus crisis, the 29-year-old wanted to pressure Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to protect the people whom a rent strike wouldn’t help—the city’s 36,000 unhoused people. But the execution was trickier. To actually get inside a room, Brown had to stage a small but meticulously crafted con.
He arrived with an entourage in tow. Jed Parriott, a thirtysomething housing activist with Street Watch L.A., played his manager. Keith, a tall guy dressed in all black, played his bodyguard. Victoria, a punkish make-up artist with green triangles painted above her eyebrows, played his backup dancer. And Luna, a woman with waist-length hair, played his girlfriend (and also really is). The plan was to pose as a famous person and ask to check out a room—to make sure it was “big enough,” Parriott said, grinning during a dress rehearsal the day prior. Once inside, they would refuse to leave.
“I thought, how about I just go to a hotel with a blazer and sunglasses on—you know, look presentable, like someone that I am—and just go in?” Brown said. “You’ll see the difference between how they treat a famous person and a homeless person. Money makes you human at this point. It’s crazy.”
Friday afternoon, the group filed into the lobby, all wearing masks, and took seats six feet apart. They had chosen the hotel for its location—the Ritz’ proximity to the L.A. Live entertainment complex makes it a hot spot for the kind of celebrity Brown was pretending to be. But more importantly the hotel shared a building with another luxury hotel, the J.W. Marriott, which had temporarily closed down, leaving all of its rooms unoccupied as people like Brown slept on the street.
“We’d like to book three rooms for 10 nights,” Jed told the concierge, lowering his voice to sound more managerial. The rooms cost $490 each. Not a problem, Jed said, so long as they could see the room first. The concierge agreed, leading Brown, Jed, and Victoria to room 222, an airy suite on the 22nd floor with black walls, a king-sized bed, and a flatscreen TV. Brown looked around, paused, and then turned back to the door.
“Actually, I’m not famous,” he said. “I’m homeless. I live in Echo Park. And I’m not leaving this hotel until Mayor Garcetti commandeers these vacant rooms.” The concierge stared. He left without saying a word.
It’s been seven weeks since California Gov. Gavin Newsom implemented his stay-at-home order, which now exists in some form or another across the county. But staying at home isn’t an option for the half a million people in America—58,936 of whom live in Los Angeles County—who don’t have homes. It’s a dangerous proposition. According to a recent study, unhoused people are at much greater risk of COVID-19-related complications, being on average older, more likely to have comorbidities, and less likely to have access to hygiene resources.
On April 3, Gov. Newsom launched a program called Project Roomkey, which allocated federal emergency funds to acquire 15,000 vacant hotel rooms and shelter the state’s unhoused residents. Los Angeles County Supervisors and Garcetti soon followed suit, announcing funds for an additional 15,000 rooms in the city. But only some people would qualify for the program—you had to be over 65 or suffer from underlying health conditions. And Garcetti asked that the hotels volunteer their rooms, rather than his commandeering them, though it remains within his executive power to do so. (Neither Newsom or Garcetti’s office responded to requests for comment).
“It’s not about commandeering rooms,” Garcetti said in a briefing on April 16. “It’s not like there’s a list of 2,000 people and we only have 1,000 rooms, it’s the opposite.”
As of May 1, only 1,508 people have been placed in hotel rooms in Los Angeles, according to Christopher Yee, communications director at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). But activists and service workers told The Daily Beast that lack of interest is not the problem. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, the CEO of St. Joseph’s Center, a homelessness outreach nonprofit which has so far prepared two hotels for unhoused residents, told The Daily Beast that after each building opened, they reached capacity within a week. “There’s no shortage of need for Project Roomkey resources,” Yee said.
“15,000? Look at the ratio,” Brown said. “That’s a joke. That’s a smack in the face. There’s 60,000 of us out here.”
Brown tried to find shelter through Project Roomkey but he wasn’t eligible. “I’m not over 65 and I don’t have any health issues,” Brown said. “So now I have no choice. I can’t get a job—what’s the news today? Over 30 million jobless claims or something? A job is not an option. The only option is to Rosa Parks—sit in that hotel room and just not move.”
Before he staged a sting to take over a luxury Los Angeles hotel, Brown grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York. He more or less raised himself, Brown said, walking to Public School 86 alone at 5 years old, and playing basketball all the time. As he neared graduation at Hillcrest High School, Brown played in a Nickelodeon basketball showcase, where he ranked among the top players. In 2011, he moved to Orange County to play point guard at Fullerton College. But the fit wasn’t right, Brown said. He left after six months.
Brown relocated to Los Angeles to pursue acting and modeling. A tall, Jamaican-American guy with light-green eyes and a tufty beard, he signed to a talent agent named Michael Maddox. Maddox became a mentor. By 2015, Brown had booked a gig modeling for Lady Gaga’s fragrance, Fame; shot a commercial and a campaign for FILA in Germany; played a basketball player in a commercial for the California Lottery; and posed for Moncler in Italy.
But work did not translate into financial stability, and in his midtwenties, Brown twice found himself without a home. For a while, he was sleeping at the gym where he worked in Studio City. But that came to an end when his manager found out. “One day he came and said, ‘This is not a hotel, you’ve got to get out,’” Brown said. “Then, I was just on the streets. I ended up quitting. I didn’t think that was right that he said, ‘This isn't it a hotel.’ There’s a way to do things and there’s a way to say things to people—especially in a vulnerable time, being homeless. But I don’t blame him. He wouldn’t know unless he experienced it himself.”
Eventually, Brown moved in with his girlfriend and things looked up. He landed a modeling contract with a South African agency, and moved to Cape Town in January of 2019. But when the contract ended in April, he came back to California and broke up with his girlfriend. By June, he was homeless again. By August, he was living in a tent at Echo Park Lake.
It was there that Brown got into organizing. His first night at the encampment, Brown said, it got raided by cops. “One guy told me they always do that. And I was like, OK. But then I just got tired of the police harassing homeless people. I didn’t know that police harassed homeless people,” Brown said. “They were trying to mess with poor people—people who are already homeless. ‘Get out of the park’—to go where? Skid Row? Where people are dying? So, we said no. Then I met Jed and we started organizing.”
Brown’s activism work has garnered press attention. In January and February, he spearheaded several protests at the encampment against homeless evictions in the area, which made the news. At one of them, onlookers shot a video of Brown getting pushed to the ground by a circle of park rangers. The police tried to charge him with battery of a peace officer. But after activists called the jail over 1,000 times, Brown was released in the middle of the night.
Back at the hotel, after the group took over the room upstairs, the lobby was quiet. The concierge returned to the front desk and noiselessly called the police. Outside, a group of protesters had formed, holding signs that read slogans like “Commandeer Vacant Hotels” and “No Vacancy!”—a reference to the campaign of the same name demanding California repurpose as many rooms as possible to house the homeless. Arthur Dennis, the hotel’s director of security and safety, told the group that, once law enforcement arrived, they would have a discussion about the best path forward.
In total, more than five cop cars descended on the scene. A dozen police officers, three not wearing masks, crowded into the hotel lobby. They conferred for hours, reviewing security footage, confirming with protesters that neither Brown nor Jed was armed, before going upstairs. In the hallway outside room 222, Victoria stood guard, while Brown and Jed waited inside. A legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild stood watch to ensure the officers respected the protesters’ rights. After more waiting, the commanding officer asked Victoria if she would leave. She refused. They asked if she would allow them to speak with Jed and Brown in person. She refused.
A few hours later, Mayor Garcetti gave his evening press conference. He had heard the news, and at one moment, looked directly at the camera and said Brown’s name. “We have a room for you,” Garcetti declared. Around the same time, Brown, Jed, and Victoria were arrested. As an officer took down Jed’s information, he asked him to spell his last name. “Parriott,” Jed said, “like Marriott—which has 900 empty rooms.”