Mar 18, 2020 - Health

How to protect the homeless from the coronavirus

Kim Hart, author of Cities

Puerta del Sol square in Madrid on Monday. Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

People experiencing homelessness don't have access to the recommended precautions to stave off the coronavirus.

The state of play: They often don't have access to places to wash their hands, many sleep outside in crowded encampments, and social distancing is next to impossible in crowded shelters.

  • The population living outside tends to be older and to have pre-existing health conditions.
  • If they do get sick, they're more likely to end up in intensive care, said Samantha Batko, a research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Why it matters: "People sleeping outside in crowded and unclean situations could rapidly expand the spread of the disease," Batko said. "We have to rapidly expand shelter capacity."

What's happening: Half of the country's unsheltered homeless population lives in California, which is taking aggressive steps. Gov. Gavin Newsom is securing empty hotel and motel rooms for shelter.

  • San Francisco has rented RVs to isolate people who end up with the virus but don't need hospitalization. Along with Los Angeles, the city has placed sanitation stations at encampments.
  • In Washington state, King County purchased a former Econo Lodge in Kent to use as a quarantine site. But the decision came under fire when a homeless person waiting for results of a COVID-19 test left the premises and boarded a bus.
  • Other municipalities are considering leasing vacant buildings for temporary shelters, so people with symptoms can be isolated from others who have nowhere else to go. San Diego is working with local universities to use empty dorms for this purpose.
  • LA and others are handing out hygiene packs with hand sanitizer and soap.

The catch: Despite outreach efforts, homeless programs rely on funding, supplies and volunteers, all of which are in short supply.

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