California homeless advocate: ‘We’re moving way too slowly’

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A homeless person sits on the street in San Francisco, Thursday, April 2, 2020. Since the beginning of an international pandemic, officials in California have said one population is particularly vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to others: the homeless. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other elected officials have vowed repeatedly to get them indoors. On Friday, Newsom announced that money from the federal government will help pay for 15,000 hotel rooms during the pandemic.

With at least a dozen homeless testing positive so far, there is a heightened concern “to isolate people into shelters like this and provide those basic essential services,” he said outside a Sacramento hotel now housing recently homeless people.

Advocates for the homeless have been frustrated since Newsom announced two weeks ago that the state would move quickly to acquire 51,000 hotel rooms. The state now has 7,000, he said Friday, housing nearly 900 people.

With an estimated 150,000 homeless in California, the number is just a fraction of what’s needed, the governor acknowledged.

Testing shortages and bureaucratic wrangling have made it difficult to move people indoors and it’s unclear how many even have the highly contagious virus.

“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.

It’s a struggle playing out nationwide. In Portland, Oregon, some 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 — temporarily sleeping on rectangles painted on a makeshift parking lot sparked outrage.

The Trump administration announced $3 billion Thursday for homelessness pandemic efforts.

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.”

Under the agreement announced Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for 75% of the cost to house homeless people who test positive for the virus, who may have been exposed, or those who are older and have underlying health issues.

Some San Francisco supervisors have called for all people who can take care of themselves to be moved into empty rooms. Mayor London Breed has pushed back, saying the focus should be on people already in shelters or those showing symptoms.

Breed has repeatedly said it’s not so easy to house a population where many struggle with mental illness or addictions.

“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?'” Breed said. “We don’t have the ability to force anyone to stay anywhere.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 11,000 Californians and killed more than 250, 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.

San Diego County has been among the most proactive, sending outreach teams with nurses to distribute hygiene kits and focusing first on people who want help getting into a hotel. About 300 high-risk homeless people have moved into some of the 2,000 hotel rooms.

“Once we plow through the thousands of people who are accepting our help we’ll be forced to deal with that stickier situation,” San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said.

Needa Bee is the founder of a grassroots collective 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.

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