A plan to house homeless people with the coronavirus in a hotel near a gated Orange County retirement community is causing outrage among some residents.
County officials recently entered into an agreement to use two boutique Ayres hotels as temporary housing for those without shelter amid the COVID-19 pandemic. One hotel is just outside Laguna Woods Village, a community with thousands of residents older than 55.
County officials say they have few options as they try to quickly move people indoors amid fears that an outbreak among the homeless population could further strain health systems. They say the facility will be locked down, with patients unable to have visitors or leave freely.
Residents of the retirement community, where the average age is about 78, say they fear having homeless patients or the staff that cares for them nearby because their age puts them at high risk of death from the virus.
On Saturday afternoon, dozens of residents gathered outside the hotel at times shouting “Don’t kill us,” while others circled nearby in their cars, honking their horns.
Laguna Woods city officials have said they are deeply concerned by the county’s decision and are exploring legal action.
“There are empty hotels and motels all over the county that would love the big bucks from this contract,” Mayor Pro Tem Shari Horne said. “I don’t know if they were asked. I don’t know if they looked.”
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents Laguna Woods, said she too was not happy about the decision to use the hotel, which was made by the county’s Emergency Operations Center, because of its proximity to elderly residents. She said county officials tried to secure contracts with at least a dozen other hotels but were unsuccessful.
“As far as I know, we do not have an alternate location. I believe we are still looking but we have a very short period of time,” she said. “This is about saving lives.”
The county has to move quickly as it prepares for a surge in cases in the coming weeks. On Sunday, county officials reported that there have been 786 coronavirus cases and 14 deaths.
Officials across the state have been working to get homeless people off the street amid the health crisis but the efforts have met with mixed results. Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated $50 million to purchase or lease hotels and motels in order to shelter homeless people, and counties across the state are now trying to secure those rooms.
A recent study by researchers at Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA estimated that the pandemic is likely to kill more than 3,400 homeless people and lead to the hospitalization of more than 21,000. The population is particularly vulnerable to severe outcomes from coronavirus because of the advanced age, underlying health conditions and often weak immune systems of people who live on the streets.
Bartlett said the county is working to make sure the hotel is what she called a “self-isolation lockdown facility.”
“I will do everything in my power to secure this facility,” she said, adding that homeless people “don’t have a home to go to and self-isolate. So they’re either out there on the street infecting others or we place them into a self-isolation lockdown facility.”
The 138-bed hotel will house “medically stable” people who test positive for COVID-19, or who have symptoms. It will start receiving clients sometime between Thursday and Sunday, county officials said in a statement.
In order to stay at the hotel, homeless people have to be referred for a medical screening and intake by shelters providers, county staff and contractors, hospitals or law enforcement.
Residents will get meals on site and will not be allowed to have visitors. They can leave only in a van provided by staff in order to go to the hospital or to another shelter. Four security guards and other staff will be at the site 24 hours a day, and Bartlett said she is working with county staff to also have sheriff’s deputies at the site.
In a statement, Donald Ayres III of Ayres Hotels said the company had “weighed the decision very thoughtfully and decided our community would be better served by Ayres providing our buildings to help Orange County mitigate this current health crisis.” The other hotel that will be used by the county is in the city of Orange. The company stopped taking reservations for guests at the two hotels Tuesday, the statement said.
Residents of Laguna Woods Village, meanwhile, say they don’t believe the facility will ever be completely locked down, and they worry about staff shopping in nearby stores. They say the county should have consulted with the city and residents before making its decision.
So far, there have been few if any cases of coronavirus in the city. The county reports the number of cases in cities with populations less than 25,000 only if they have more than five cases. So far Laguna Woods had not met that threshold, and residents say they want to keep it that way.
“We just feel like we have paid our dues. And we deserve to live the rest of our lives in an environment that is safe and secure and feel that opening up the Ayres hotel to the homeless people really jeopardizes our sense of security and well-being,” said Annie McCary, 65, a retired nurse practitioner who lives in the village.