Coronavirus concerns in homeless community spur San Diego to use convention center as shelter during pandemic

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Some of the most vulnerable members of the community in San Diego will soon be housed in a building better known for hosting the pop culture extravaganza known as Comic-Con.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said Monday that more than 5,000 people in the city do not have the option to "stay home" during the coronavirus pandemic and that the city will use the San Diego Convention Center as a homeless shelter.

“We are taking dramatic actions to help keep the coronavirus from spreading in the homeless community. This is a new, coordinated, system-wide approach to serve homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic," Faulconer said in a statement. "The Convention Center is a centerpiece of San Diego’s economy. During this pandemic, it will be a centerpiece of our fight against the coronavirus.”

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There are about 151,000 homeless individuals in California, with the Golden State having half of the country’s total street population. The group is particularly susceptible to COVID-19, which can be spread through coughing and sneezing.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said his office estimates as many as 60,000 people experiencing homelessness could contract the virus, and has pledged to spend $150 million on a statewide level to combat the spread.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said more than 5,000 people in the city do not have the option to "stay home" during the coronavirus pandemic and that the city will use the San Diego Convention Center as a homeless shelter.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said more than 5,000 people in the city do not have the option to "stay home" during the coronavirus pandemic and that the city will use the San Diego Convention Center as a homeless shelter. (Google Maps)

Two years ago, San Diego faced a hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people and sickened hundreds that spurred calls to do something about the region's homeless population.

In preparing for COVID-19, officials said they plan to use the convention center and Golden Hall, another major event space, to bring even more people off the streets and relocate others from existing shelters who won't meet social distancing requirements.

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As of Tuesday, 55 families were relocated from a bridge shelter into motel rooms, accounting for a total of 153 people, according to FOX5. So far, no one from the homeless population in San Diego has tested positive for coronavirus.

“The worst of COVID-19 hasn’t hit us yet,” Faulconer said Monday. “The storm is still out there.”

Officials also have procured about 1,783 hotel and motel rooms to temporarily isolate people who may have COVID-19 symptoms.

“We’re utilizing a comprehensive array of resources, including motel rooms and larger shelter spaces, to protect the homeless population during this pandemic," Regional Task Force on the Homeless CEO Tamera Kohler said in a statement.

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Besides the expanded indoor spaces, San Diego County has set up hand-washing stations in more than 200 locations, including 66 in the city of San Diego according to County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.

Fletcher said of the rooms secured by the county, 200 will be used for homeless people at an at-risk age or who have underlying health conditions.

"Expanding sheltering capacity, access to medical professionals, monitoring for symptoms and information sharing best positions us to prevent the spread of coronavirus to our unsheltered neighbors," he said.

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City officials said the Golden Hall facility will open first for people in the city's bridge system who show no signs of the virus. The convention center is still being in the process of being set up.

Comic-Con San Diego, the biggest event hosted at the center each year, is still scheduled for July. Organizers told the San Diego Union-Tribune they are still continuing to operate as if that won't change.

“We applaud the actions of the city as they offer additional support to some of our community’s most vulnerable in these unprecedented times,” Comic-Con said in a statement emailed to the Union-Tribune. “And while we continue to explore WonderCon dates, we are diligently working on Comic-Con. Currently, our hope is that the event will occur July 23-26, 2020, as scheduled.”

As of Wednesday morning, California had 2,628 cases of COVID-19 and 54 deaths. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that half of the state's confirmed coronavirus patients are younger than 50.