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‘We’re not prepared’: How LA is aiding homeless amid coronavirus outbreak

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“If we have 30,000 people sleeping on the streets every night, we’re not prepared for a public health crisis—period”

People living without permanent housing could be disproportionately impacted by outbreaks.
Getty Images

With novel coronavirus spreading in Los Angeles, local officials are now delivering hand-washing stations to homeless encampments in an attempt to prevent the virus from infecting some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin says he dipped into his office budget and coordinated with the city’s recreation and parks department to deploy 40 stations in his Westside district. It’s a start, but Bonin acknowledges these measures won’t be enough to protect unsheltered residents in the event of a local epidemic.

“I have absolutely no doubt that we are not prepared for that at all,” he says. “If we have 30,000 people sleeping on the streets every night, we’re not prepared for a public health crisis—period.”

So far, the virus hasn’t been identified in anyone experiencing homelessness. But because older people and those with underlying health problems are more likely to develop the most serious form of COVID-19—the illness caused by the virus—people living without permanent housing could be disproportionately impacted by outbreaks. And with limited access to shelter and healthcare, homeless residents could have a harder time recovering from the sickness.

A small gray sink on a sidewalk next to a blue tent.
A hand-washing station deployed near a Westside homeless encampment.
Courtesy Council District 11

“Hearing from the officials that this virus impacts the elderly the most, we quickly think about how quite a bit of people experiencing homelessness are elderly and are already experiencing geriatric conditions that you usually see in much older people,” says Amy Turk, CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center.

The center released a report earlier this year examining the plight of women experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. It suggests that nearly half of homeless women are over the age of 50, and more than 55 percent have experienced health problems.

“We see people living with chronic health problems—heart conditions, diabetes,” says Turk. “And through no fault of their own, some of these people also have very limited access to places to wash their hands.”

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer announced on Wednesday the county’s first death related to novel coronavirus, and today said the county is attempting to secure temporary housing for “people who absolutely can’t go anywhere else, should they need to be isolated or quarantined.”

Public health officials have encouraged people showing symptoms of COVID-19 to stay at home and contact a doctor. That’s not easy for residents living in shelters and makeshift housing.

“We’d like to avoid having people ill with coronavirus in our encampments,” said Ferrer. “That’s really a bad place to be if you’re sick in general, and it would be a terrible place to be if you have an infectious disease.”

Residents of a small community of tents and makeshift shelters at Echo Park Lake say they’re worried about exposure to the virus in the city’s shelters, in which beds are often positioned just a few feet apart from one another with minimal division.

“Our top concern right now is Coronavirus,” residents wrote in a statement Wednesday. “An open floor plan in shelters is both dangerous to the epidemic and the very opposite of what should be offered to the homeless.”

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who represents the area, last week proposed opening an emergency shelter at a nearby church. Under his proposal, the shelter could open as soon as next week, though it’s not clear whether the push to get the site up and running is related to the spread of novel coronavirus.

Turk says public health officials advised Downtown service providers that beds in shelters and temporary housing centers should be “as far away from each other as possible.” They also recommended limiting big gatherings and physical contact between residents.

“We’re creating a new social norm,” she says. “People are doing little dances, there’s a lot of elbow bumping and ‘virtual hugging.’”

Alex Comisar, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti, says the city is working with the county health department to determine ways to quarantine people living in shelters, if necessary.

Tran Le, communications director for Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, says 125 hand-washing stations are being distributed today citywide in accordance with a proposal unveiled last week by Rodriguez and O’Farrell.

Bonin says he hopes some of these stations will remain in place after fears over novel coronavirus begin to dissipate.

“It’s about addressing a public health issue,” he says. “This is the minimal thing we need to be doing to protect the health and safety of people who are unhoused.”