SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Since the beginning of an international pandemic, experts have known one population is particularly vulnerable to contracting and spreading the coronavirus: the homeless.
Elected officials have vowed repeatedly to get homeless people indoors, but testing shortages and bureaucratic wrangling are making it difficult to help them.
Relatively few of California's 150,000 have been moved into individual quarters and there’s no indication of widespread checks on health and safety among the homeless. It’s unclear — partly due to testing shortages — how many even have the highly contagious virus. More than a dozen cases have been confirmed.
“The whole shelter-in-place and the whole lack of shelter-in-place for homeless people was totally poorly thought out," said Needa Bee, who lives in a camper in Oakland with her teenage daughter.
The shutdown of public libraries and other facilities has made it much harder for homeless people to get clean water and food or use the bathroom. Many are also older or have underlying health conditions.
It's a struggle playing out nationwide. In Portland, Oregon, recovering homeless will be housed in the retro-hip Jupiter Hotel. In Seattle’s King County, authorities bought a motel and leased another to take infected people, with plans to move hundreds of homeless people from shelters into hotel rooms next week.
Photos of homeless people in Las Vegas — a city brimming with hotels — sleeping on rectangles painted on a makeshift parking lot sparked outrage. City officials said the setup was temporary after a shelter resident tested positive for the virus.
The Trump administration announced $3 billion Thursday for homelessness pandemic efforts. California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged $150 million in homeless aid as one of his earliest acts during the crisis. He pushed back on the idea that people sleeping on hard streets would refuse help, saying “there’s a lot of mythology about resistance; I think it’s wildly overstated.”
Mary Kate Bacalao, policy director at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, called the situation “absolutely terrifying."
“The urgency of this, and the urgency to get people inside, now more than ever cannot be overstated," she said. “We're moving way too slowly."
In San Francisco, some supervisors want more aggressive action to move people off the streets, while the mayor is focusing on people already in shelters or those showing symptoms. The city moved 123 people showing symptoms or awaiting test results into hotel rooms but didn’t get thermometers for shelters until last week.
“We have the hotel rooms, we have the money, we have the staffing. ... Why wouldn't we do this right now and save thousands of lives?" Supervisor Hillary Ronen said Thursday.
Mayor London Breed says it's not so easy in a population where many struggle with mental illness or addictions and need heavy support services. Skilled workers are needed to staff the facilities. Some homeless are afraid of losing their belongings or their freedom.
“I know that people are asking, ‘Well, why don’t we just open the doors and let everyone who’s homeless get access to a hotel room?'" she said. “We don’t have the ability to force anyone to stay anywhere.”
The coronavirus has infected nearly 11,000 Californians and caused at least 240 deaths, according a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
For most people, COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For others, it can cause more severe illness such as pneumonia, or death.
California shelters are spacing out beds to maintain the 6 feet (1.8 meters) of social distance health experts say is critical to dampening the spread of the virus. Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego counties are setting up backup shelters to take overflow residents.
Phil Mastrocola, who runs a homeless shelter at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose, said one thing lacking is information. Homeless people want to know how to tell if they are sick and where to go if they are sick, he said. For many homeless, the hospital is their primary care physician.
“So if you’re telling people not to go the hospital, where do they go?" he said.
San Diego County has been among the most proactive in the pandemic, sending outreach teams with nurses to distribute hygiene kits and embedding health care workers at county shelters.
San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said workers are focusing first on people who want help getting into a hotel — not people who may be resistant. About 300 high-risk homeless people have moved into some of the 2,000 hotel rooms acquired.
“Once we plow through the thousands of people who are accepting our help we’ll be forced to deal with that stickier situation,” Fletcher said.
Bee is the founder of a grassroots collective called The Village that administers to roughly 40 Oakland homeless encampments. They've been asking for donations of lemons and vinegar to sanitize hands since bleach and Lysol are so hard to get, distributing raw garlic for an immune boost, and collecting aloe plants to make hand sanitizer.
Compass Family Shelter raised private money to pay for a six-night hotel stay for a family who had to leave a shelter while waiting for their daughter's COVID-19 test results, which were negative. The family left Monday and can't be reached.
Caseworkers are also trying desperately to reach a woman who recently gave birth to a baby with medical issues. They didn't initially have a room for her.
“We lose these windows of opportunity when we don’t have the flexibility to say yes quickly," Bacalao said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.