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As the Coronavirus Pandemic Continues, Homeless Communities Are Particularly Vulnerable

How California, which is home to more than half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population, is addressing the needs of the unhoused.

(Photo by iStock / Getty Images Plus)

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced earlier this week that California will begin using hotels and motels to house homeless people during the new coronavirus pandemic. The governor said the measures would “get people out of encampments and into environments where we can address their growing anxiety and our growing concern about the health of some of our most vulnerable Californians.”

Medical experts say that homeless populations are at higher risk of catching COVID-19 and dying from it. Shelters and temporary housing often pack many people into small spaces and people living on the streets don’t have easy access to places to wash their hands. Homeless people are also more likely to have underlying medical issues that make it more likely they will die from the virus. People over the age of 60 are also more susceptible to COVID-19 and 50% of homeless people are over the age of 50.

Shayla Myers, senior attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who focuses on homelessness and housing, said that she supports Newsom’s plan, as long as the hotels and motels aren’t otherwise full of low-income people using them as a last resort.

“It is a great idea,” she said. “Getting people to shelter and getting people to be able to socially distance themselves is incredibly important right now, particularly because unhoused folks tend to be some of the most elderly and most vulnerable people in our community.” 

But the plan will only be effective if the hotel rooms are made available at scale with the need, Myers said. The governor’s office on Wednesday said it would be spending $50 million to purchase travel trailers and lease rooms in hotels, motels, and other facilities, and said it has identified over 950 hotels across 53 counties that are potentially eligible for participation in the state’s leasing program. So far, the state has secured 393 rooms in Oakland and will continue to negotiate leases as other hotels agree to participate.

“There are a lot of proposals that are really, really important—handwashing stations, RVs for folks to self-quarantine—but the numbers in which those things are being provided go nowhere near far enough to provide the level of services that we need. If the state is going to provide 500 hotel rooms and we have [more than] 100,000 unhoused folks, that’s not a solution. That is a PR move.”

Cities in California, where more than half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lives, are also taking their own steps to combat the spread of the pandemic among the unhoused. To combat the spread of COVID-19 among the city’s more than 8,000 homeless people, San Francisco announced last week that it will be spending $5 million to help mitigate the risk of exposure for people who typically live in close quarters or unsanitary conditions.

The city said it will be expanding hours that shelters are open so that nobody is forced to leave, increasing cleaning of shelters and city-funded single room occupancy hotels which house low-income people, and setting up handwashing stations throughout the city, among other efforts. 

San Francisco officials said they will also be setting up around 30 recreational vehicles to be used as temporary housing for people who cannot self-quarantine because they are homeless or live close to others. Roughly 25,000 people live in the city’s shelters and in single room occupancy hotels. 

The plan announced by city officials is an attempt to protect the city’s most vulnerable. 

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Foscarinis said cities could be doing more to protect people who are homeless or housing unstable. She pointed to San Jose, California, which has imposed a moratorium on sweeps of homeless encampments.

“The sweeps simply result in people moving from one place to another,” she said. “What you don’t want to do, especially in these circumstances, is move people. If somebody is ill in an encampment, forcibly moving that person somewhere else just contributes to the spread.”

In Los Angeles, the city is converting recreation centers into 6,000 shelter beds for the homeless. City officials also voted Tuesday to stop enforcing an ordinance requiring homeless people to take their tents down during the day. Myers said enforcing that law would have made it harder to prevent the virus from spreading.

“Tents at least give people some level of distance and physical separation,” she said. 

The San Francisco Public Press reported last week that the city will continue to confiscate belongings from homeless people living in encampments during the outbreak. The announcement from a Department of Public Works representative comes despite warnings from health experts that confiscation will leave people more vulnerable to the virus.  

During the outbreak, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has called for the repeal or pause in enforcement of ordinances banning camping or sleeping in public, which “would ensure people can more safely shelter in place, maintain social distancing, and reduce sleep deprivation,” according to the organization. It’s also calling for preventative solutions like mobile toilets, sanitation stations, and trash bins throughout encampments. 

Myers said Los Angeles should consider setting up more handwashing stations and mobile toilets than it already has, given that public facilities, libraries, restaurants, and other places that homeless people would often use are closed during the pandemic.

Other cities are making efforts to ensure that their homeless populations don’t grow. Officials in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Jose are moving toward local ordinances that would impose a moratorium on evictions for people whose wages have been affected by coronavirus-related closures and work stoppages, according to CityLab

Secretary Ben Carson said earlier this month that the Department of Housing and Urban Development sent information to public housing authorities and homeless shelters about how to handle COVID-19, but advocates say the federal government is not doing enough to stop the virus’ spread among people lacking shelter. The agency has so far not deployed emergency funding for homeless individuals or for shelters, although on Wednesday it said it would be suspending all foreclosures and evictions from roughly 8 million HUD homes.

Foscarinis said she worries that the virus will cause people to further stigmatize and criminalize homeless people. Even before the outbreak, stoked by the Trump administration, many cities across the country were criminalizing homelessness through various measures including sweeps, bans on panhandling, and “quality of life” ordinances regulating hygiene and public activity.

“I’m really concerned that this will provide a justification and impetus for a doubling down on that approach,” she said. 

She said that she hopes people learn from the pandemic that criminalizing homelessness without providing the support unhoused people need has widespread effects. 

“This just illustrates that allowing homelessness to persist and not ensuring that everyone has a safe, stable home to be in is bad not just for the people directly affected but bad for the entire community,” Foscarinis said.

This story has been updated with additional details.