Respect Poverty

California takes precautions to keep homeless population safe from the coronavirus

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As California prepares for a statewide shelter-in-place order and Governor Gavin Newsom (D) predicts 56 percent of the population will be infected with coronavirus, state officials are working to relocate homeless individuals into shelters or encampments to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

The Associated Press (AP) reports this is no small task; California has the largest homeless population in the U.S. thanks to high rents and cost of living expenses, and according to the Los Angeles Times, there are approximately 108,000 homeless people across the state. The L.A. Times, however, reports that about 60,000 homeless people could be impacted by the coronavirus in the next eight weeks.

To combat a looming health crisis among this vulnerable population, Gov. Newsom has allocated $150 million to local governments to help move homeless people into shelter, both AP and the L.A. Times report. Another $50 million in state funding will go toward buying travel trailers and renting hotel rooms to act as temporary housing for the homeless who show symptoms of COVID-19 and to safely practice social distancing. 

“People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” Newsom told reporters. “Helping these residents is critical to protecting public health, flattening the curve and slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

Although homelessness is extensive in California, it is not unique to the West Coast. Other cities with many housing-insecure individuals include New York, where the city health department sent out an 11-page coronavirus prevention handbook for homeless shelters and other congregate residences to follow. The New York Times summarizes the document as instructing shelter leaders to screen residents for symptoms and isolate those who have had contact with the virus. 

Currently, in New York City, at least seven homeless shelter residents have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Washington, D.C., battles widespread homelessness as well, and local outlets report that provider Unity Health Care, a network of community health care centers in the D.C. region, is offering coronavirus testing for homeless individuals. 

Neither East Coast city has deployed similar initiatives seen in California, aside from New York joining in suspending evictions, keeping shelters operational and routinely checking for COVID-19 symptoms, such as a fever and respiratory issues. 

Still, public shelters may not be the most viable answer. Maria Foscarinis, the founder and executive director of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said that people who live on the streets or in shelters “are uniquely at risk of catching any disease, and especially one as virulent as the coronavirus,” according to The Hill

Hence, President Trump directed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to put evictions and foreclosures on hold so people can maintain their homes during the COVID-19 outbreak. This move is aimed at both preventing coronavirus spread and to keep the housing market confident. 

Activists ultimately support the move to help the homeless find adequate shelter, but worry about cramped conditions. 

“There’s no such thing as isolating someone in a homeless shelter. Once it gets in it can spread very rapidly,” Joseph Mettimano, president of the nonprofit Central Union Mission, said to The Hill in a separate story. “We’re still fully open for business. We’re still sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry. But we are taking all reasonable steps to keep it out of the building.”