In California, where more than 100,000 homeless people live on the street—at extra risk from the new coronavirus, and without any way to easily wash their hands or self-quarantine—the state government is now working to procure hotel and motel rooms and deploy hundreds of RVs to provide temporary shelter.
The problem exists nationwide, though it’s particularly bad in California, where half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lives. Across the state, more than 300 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and many more surely have the virus but haven’t been tested. If the virus spreads into homeless encampments, it would be devastating. Diseases already spread rapidly in these settings; L.A.’s Skid Row, overrun with rats, has seen recent outbreaks of typhus and Hepatitis A.
Some cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have started installing handwashing stations at homeless encampments. San Francisco has temporarily leased RVs that will be used to isolate people who test positive for the virus but don’t need hospitalization. The city is also extending shelter hours and increasing meal services, so people in shelters can spend less time outside. (Most homeless shelters close during the day, forcing people out.) Some parts of the coronavirus response are making life even more challenging for people on the street; public libraries have closed, along with other places that were once a place to access restrooms. In L.A., gyms are now closed, along with restaurants other than for takeout orders.
Shelters are also struggling to prepare. Most don’t have a way to isolate people who are most vulnerable to the virus because of age or illness, or to quarantine people who have already been exposed or are sick. Some shelters are already facing reductions in staff and volunteers either because staff are sick themselves or caring for someone else. The health care giant Kaiser Permanente, which already recognized homelessness as such a serious health concern that it has invested in affordable housing, is now committing $1 million to homeless service providers in Santa Clara County in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
The situation could get even more challenging if the current economic turmoil means that more people can’t pay rent, though a handful of cities now have temporary bans on evictions. It’s critical that Congress’s emergency response is amended “to include robust resources to help protect our homeless populations and allow low-income people to continue to keep a roof over their head during and after this crisis,” Diane Yentel, the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wrote in a statement last week. “Any coronavirus response must include emergency rental and eviction prevention assistance and financial assistance directly to homelessness service providers, housing authorities, and housing assistance providers.” The organization lists additional recommendations here, including the obvious fact that the country needs to do a better job of addressing the underlying challenge of homelessness to solve the long-term problem—not only the temporary crisis.