Advocates for those who live on the streets and in shelters say they are worried the coronavirus could spread through California’s homeless community — and that not enough is being done to prevent it.
“We need to be really vigilant and proactive,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
Elrenbusch said people who are homeless could be at risk of a more severe illness should they contract COVID-19. That’s because many already have respiratory problems and compromised immune systems.
“Those are the very people that I’ve been reading about that are much more likely for the coronavirus to be much more severe and perhaps even die from.”
Local and county officials, Erlenbusch said, haven’t issued any guidelines specific to the region’s homeless population for how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“They’re not moving on it, just to cut to the chase,” he added.
But Brenda Bongiorno, a spokesperson for Sacramento County, said efforts are being made.
“Homeless outreach workers have been proactive in communicating with this population,” she wrote in an email.
She added the county’s health department has not received any reports of COVID-19 cases with those who are unsheltered.
“However, we recognize that those who are experiencing homelessness do present unique risks and challenges for outbreaks of any infectious diseases,” Bongiorno said.
A spokesperson for the city of Sacramento said officials are “in continuous contact with both the County and the State and is following all recommendations and guidelines.”
In a statement, the California Department of Public Health said homeless people are not likely to have a specific risk for COVID-19, specifically citing that unsheltered people “are not likely to have any particular risk for COVID-19 related to international travel or exposure to recent travelers.”
As the situation evolves, the agency says state and local health officials will reach out to more communities at risk of exposure.
At Loaves and Fishes, which provides food and services for people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento, executive director Noel Kammermann said health officials had not yet reached out with guidance.
Even so, he’s making sure hand sanitizer dispensers are filled up and that people are washing their hands.
Kammermann said he expects COVID-19 will eventually make its way through the homeless community, which doesn’t have much access to health care.
“I’m concerned particularly for the folks that are experiencing homelessness that are of the elderly population or if they have a compromised immune system as the coronavirus starts to make its way around,” he said.
Quiver Watts, editor of the Street Sheet, a newspaper run by the San Francisco Coalition of Homelessness, said guidance from health officials to stay home if you’re sick and wash hands regularly won’t always work for people on the streets.
“We’re sort of wondering: ‘What if you can’t stay home?’” Watts said. “For most of the folks that I work with, staying home is not an option and neither is washing hands, because there aren’t public restrooms that are available.”
Watts added that the San Francisco coalition will share its own recommendations with city officials for how to help homeless people while the city’s state of emergency over the coronavirus lasts. Those include placing a moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps by city officials, which Watts said can result in the confiscation of medicine and survival gear.
The group is also suggesting public hygiene stations, creating outreach teams to inform homeless people about the risks of the virus and setting up a hotline that can provide information about health resources.
In January, a federal report estimated California had 151,000 homeless people in 2019, a 16 percent increase from the year before.
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