Public health officials are warning Americans to stay home, avoid any unnecessary travel, and limit contact with others as ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
But what happens when you don’t have a home? How do you practice social distancing when, at best, the only barrier between you and your neighbor is a nylon tent wall?
That’s the question facing the more than 151,000 homeless individuals in California, and one that is vexing lawmakers and public health workers as they try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among a particularly vulnerable segment of the state’s population.
“This is a serious public health issue and I’m concerned that it is going to have a very devastating effect on the homeless,” Jeffrey Norris, the medical director at Father Joe's Villages, a homeless outreach organization in San Diego, told Fox News.
Norris added: “Many have medical comorbidities – diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease – that put them at a higher risk. Many elderly folks experience homelessness. Whether they live on the streets or in dense shelters, they have a high prevalence in risk factors.”
The stress and physical toll of living on the streets paired with the poor sanitary conditions faced by the homeless make them particularly susceptible to diseases and viruses. Adding the fact that many homeless people deal with mental health and substance abuse issues and are generally wary of local authorities means that many are hesitant to seek help when they do get sick.
California is home to half of the country’s street homeless population -- and more than one-fifth of the reported cases of coronavirus nationwide so far – and state and local lawmakers have already thrown billions of dollars trying to tackle the mounting issue of homelessness. The coronavirus pandemic adds another – possibly deadly – angle to the issue, but one the state has dealt with before.
Outbreaks of disease and viruses are common among the homeless population. San Diego recently battled a two-year-long hepatitis A outbreak that started in a homeless encampment and killed 20 people, sickening almost 600 others. In 2019, a typhus outbreak hit Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row, while the homeless living in Santa Monica dealt with a scourge of trench fever, contracted from body lice.
“What we learned before is applicable, but we’re dealing with an outbreak now on a much larger scale,” Norris said.
Given the close quarters that many homeless individuals live in on the streets, in encampments and especially in tightly packed shelters, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced during a news conference on Sunday that the state would be prioritizing them as a vulnerable population. While Newsom did not go into details, he did say that state and local authorities would be working to move homeless individuals into hotels and motels purchased by the state in recent days and into 450 state-owned trailers that will be dispatched across the state.
In Los Angeles – home to just under 59,000 homeless people in the city alone – Mayor Eric Garcetti said that officials were setting up 250 handwashing stations in homeless encampments, making more public toilets available, working to open 14 more homeless shelters by July. City outreach workers have also been told to practice social distancing from their clients in an effort to stay the spread of infection.
Garcetti also put a moratorium on evictions to ensure that no more people become homeless during the pandemic. A number of other cities across the state and country – from Santa Monica and San Jose to New York and Seattle – have issued similar moratoriums.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed recently issued an emergency declaration that allowed the city to rent 30 recreational vehicles to house any homeless individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus. The city is also working hotels to find empty hotel rooms where individuals can quarantine and self-isolate.
Breed also issued an order requiring that residents remain in place, with the only exception being for essential needs, although homeless people are not subject to the order.
Officials in San Diego are also setting up hand-washing stations in encampments and passing out hygiene kits, which include hand sanitizer, info on symptoms, water, soap, tissues, and hand wipes. Mayor Kevin Faulconer has also deployed public health nurses to the city’s bridge shelters to monitor for any residents with symptoms of COVID-19.
Along with the homeless initaitve, Newsom on Sunday called for all bars, wineries, nightclubs and brewpubs to close in the nation's most populous state. The Democrat said the new orders are guidelines that “we have the capacity to enforce if necessary."
The announcement was quickly followed by an executive order by Garcetti to close bars, nightclubs, entertainment venues and gyms until at least March 31. Restaurants will be closed to the public but Garcetti will allow them to do takeout and delivery. Grocery stores will remain open.
“Everything we do right now will determine the outcome of this crisis, and we can save lives if we stay calm, care for one another, and take forceful steps to protect our communities,” Garcetti said Sunday in a statement. “That’s why we must follow the guidelines laid out by Gov. Newsom, build on them for local needs, and put the health and safety of the most vulnerable above all else.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.