SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Home to the largest homeless population in the country, California officials are rushing to get tens of thousands of people off the streets and into shelters and tents to slow the spread of the coronavirus among one of the most vulnerable and difficult-to-reach groups.
There has been only one confirmed death among California's estimated 150,000 homeless people, but authorities believe that without swift intervention, it's only a matter of time before the virus sweeps through homeless encampments and gathering spots where people are in close proximity and can't practice proper hygiene, like hand-washing.
Los Angeles has suspended an ordinance requiring tents to come down at night and has lined up dozens of trailers to use as isolation shelters. A charitable group in San Francisco was passing out tents so people could use them to separate themselves from others. Both cities also are using recreational centers and other large, open indoor spaces to create emergency shelters that have more space between beds.
Mel Tillekeratne, a leading Los Angeles homeless advocate, said Thursday that people living in encampments are “beginning to feel the fear” over the virus. He’s the founder of the Shower of Hope, which contracts with local governments to provide pop-up stations with showers and other services for homeless people.
“They’re asking, ‘How can I get hand sanitizer?’ ‘How can I get information?’” Tillekeratne said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed state and local officials to rent hotel rooms and deploy travel trailers to house the homeless. Lawmakers have given the Democratic governor up to $1 billion to spend on the crisis, and on Wednesday he announced the first $150 million would go to local governments to house the homeless.
A significant portion of the homeless population is addicted to drugs or alcohol or is mentally ill, conditions that in the past have made them resistant to accept help.
Newsom has said he is not worried about that, adding that the state has “the capacity to encourage people off the streets.”
“I think there’s a lot of mythology about resistance; I think it’s wildly overstated," Newsom told reporters this week. "I’m not ratcheting up a mindset of enforcement police state.”
Tillekeratne said it’s hard to imagine a scenario where authorities are rounding up homeless people exhibiting signs of the coronavirus and forcibly bringing them to shelters. However, he acknowledged that some won't want to go.
“Not everyone’s going to want to come in. But if we can target those that are the most vulnerable, we can fill a lot of beds,” Tillekeratne said.
Ron Lawrence, president of the California Association of Police Chiefs, said in cases where people refuse to comply, police have the authority to enforce health orders to prevent the spread of disease. Disobeying is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.
Joseph Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York City police sergeant, said police could take into custody people who are showing severe virus symptoms but refuse to accept help.
“They’re a threat to themselves and others at that point,” he said.
Giacalone said police would likely be allowed to use force if necessary to transport the person to a hospital if they are showing obvious signs of medical distress. In the case of COVID-19 symptoms, he said the person would likely need to be having severe respiratory problems or issues walking or moving.
“A runny nose isn’t going to cut it,” he said.
The number of homeless people up and down the West Coast has surged in recent years, and Seattle and Portland, Oregon, are among the cities also taking steps to protect them.
Volunteers and agency workers have fanned out in the Portland area to visit around 2,000 homeless people, Multnomah County spokesman Denis Theriault said.
“People have told us they were worried they might have been forgotten, that it was nice that someone was just giving them a little bit of something," he said.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
In California, Sacramento is among more than 15 counties that have ordered virtually everyone to stay home. For the homeless, that means limiting encampments to 10 people or fewer. Sheriff Scott Jones said that as a last resort, people who refuse could be issued citations but that they would be jailed “in only the most extreme cases.”
In San Francisco, officials are waiting for travel trailers to arrive from the state to isolate homeless people who test positive for the virus. They are seeking 3,500 hotel rooms to quarantine people who need it.
Trent Rhorer, San Francisco's Department of Human Services director, said it's difficult for officials to protect the homeless in traditional shelter settings. About 2,000 adults are in shelters where social distancing isn't possible. An additional 19,000 people live in low-income housing with shared bathrooms and kitchens.
Rhorer said the city plans to monitor people in shelters, hoping to identify those with symptoms who need isolation.
At least one homeless person has died from the coronavirus. Officials in Santa Clara County, at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay, said they are trying to figure out where the person lived and whom they were around.
Andrea Urton, chief executive of HomeFirst, which operates the county's largest homeless services center, said people are sleeping on shelter beds about 3 feet (1 meter) apart, alternating head-to-toe directions to reduce the possibility of infection. The center isn't accepting new clients.
Two people who showed signs of illness were taken to a motel with a “box of medical supplies and a food box so they can isolate,” she said.
“When this thing started, we went into full crisis mode,” Urton said. "There’s a huge sense of urgency, and I think everyone is doing everything they can.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, said she wants to see the city commandeer empty hotel rooms. She said some shelters have more than 100 people on the floor. Others are in bunk beds in close quarters, all while sharing bathrooms.
“They're still allowing people to come in for one night at a time — it's absolutely insane,” she said. “(Homeless people) are really nervous. They want to prevent the spread of the virus, and they’re not being given the opportunity to do so."
Associated Preporters Don Thompson and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento. Janie Har and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed reporting.