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Coronavirus: Bay Area scrambles to keep disease from spreading among homeless

San Jose has stopped sweeping homeless encampments

The methods vary, but the goal is the same: Do everything possible to prevent coronavirus from wreaking havoc in the Bay Area’s homeless encampments and shelters.

As more Bay Area residents are diagnosed with coronavirus and the disease continues to spread, local officials and nonprofits are stepping up efforts to protect homeless residents who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. That includes helping people on the streets wash or sanitize their hands, and setting up spaces to quarantine unhoused patients. But in a region that couldn’t house its thousands of homeless residents before coronavirus erupted, questions remain in some instances about how to fund these efforts, and where to roll them out.

In San Francisco on Tuesday, officials announced the city has leased RVs it will set up in the Presidio and then deploy around the city as needed to isolate homeless residents who are ill or have been exposed to the virus, but do not need to be hospitalized. City leaders are looking for additional quarantine options, including unoccupied residential property and vacant hotel rooms.

“Our top priority is public health and slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” Mayor London Breed wrote in a news release. “Not everyone in our city has access to housing where they can go if they are infected or are exposed to the virus, and it’s important that we take measures like this to care for our most vulnerable residents, including people who are homeless.”

The city has set aside $5 million to protect residents who are homeless or living in shelters, permanent supportive housing SROs, and face an increased risk of becoming sick or dying from COVID-19. City officials also rolled out new initiatives that include expanding hours in homeless shelters, ramping up meal delivery programs and buckling down on hygiene.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo on Tuesday said the city has temporarily suspended efforts to dismantle homeless encampments, and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese proposed taking a similar step throughout the county. Santa Clara County saw a 31% increase in homelessness between 2017 and 2019.

Stopping sweeps that force the homeless to pack up and move to a new location, and perhaps a new encampment, “makes a lot of sense,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. If people are unknowingly sick, the worst thing to do is uproot them and transplant them into a new community where the virus could spread, she said.

 “Just from a pure public health perspective, what we don’t want to be doing is reintroducing, remixing who people are with,” Kushel said.

Santa Clara County is still working on its larger strategy to address coronavirus among the homeless, said Ky Le, director of the Office of Supportive Housing. The county is considering making public bathrooms more accessible and expanding access to portable shower trailers. But the main concern is finding buildings where infected, unhoused people can be isolated Le said. And that presents the same challenges of funding and space the region has been beset with even before the virus outbreak.

Oakland, where homelessness increased 47% from 2017 to 2019, has paid for extra hand-washing stations, portable toilets and trash services at homeless encampments, and Alameda County is distributing hand sanitizer within encampments, Mayor Libby Schaaf said Monday during a media conference in Sacramento.

“We are concerned for all residents. And that actually starts with our most vulnerable residents,” she said.

St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, which offers meals, shelter beds and other services to the homeless in West Oakland, has made some key changes to protect its clients and staff, according to a memo from the organization. Instead of inviting clients into the dining room for the typical communal lunch, St. Vincent de Paul will distribute sack lunches outside. Instead of hosting its usual big Easter open house, the organization will give Easter baskets to families over a two-week period. And staff are setting up isolation areas in the shelter where they can quarantine guests showing symptoms of a potential COVID-19 infection.

In addition to hitting Bay Area residents who are already homeless, experts worry coronavirus could force additional people onto the streets. If low-income workers are infected and forced to stay home, they’ll miss paychecks — and if they’re already living on the edge, that could be disastrous, said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home.

“We’re very concerned about the financial repercussions, and frankly about the ability of people to pay their rent on April 1,” she said.

In response, Destination: Home launched a $1 million fund to help cover rent payments for Santa Clara residents at risk of displacement. The nonprofit is working with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has launched a separate COVID-19 regional response fund spanning all nine Bay Area counties.

Kushel applauded local governments and nonprofits taking steps to protect the region’s homeless. But once the hysteria around the virus dies down, Kushel hopes people continue thinking about the homeless.

“I certainly hope that when we get through to the other side of this crisis, we all take a step back and remind ourselves of the enormous cost to the individual and to society of homelessness,” she said. “I hope this highlights the incredible price of inaction.”