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Trailers sent to Orange County fairgrounds could house homeless

The 150-acre site in Costa Mesa could be used to house homeless at risk of contracting coronavirus.
(Raul Roa / Daily Pilot)

Less than a week after a proposal to house the homeless at a boutique hotel withered under intense public opposition, officials moved forward Friday with a plan to use the Orange County fairgrounds as a location for temporary housing and potential emergency medical facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The 150-acre site in Costa Mesa will receive 10 trailers Friday afternoon that fairgrounds officials say will assist with housing for unsheltered residents who may have risk factors that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

“Fairgrounds all over the state are being called into service to assist their communities, and we are happy to do our part in helping Orange County through this pandemic,” Michele Richards, chief executive of OC Fair & Event Center, said in a statement.

The trailers are arriving from Santa Ana, where the state previously allocated 39 of the structures. Santa Ana will keep 22 to isolate homeless people from the local shelter who develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 and will return the remaining 17 trailers to the county to distribute to other locations.

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Each of the trailers is expected to house one or two senior or chronically ill individuals. Temporarily housing people in trailers would be “a preventative measure among our most vulnerable homeless population,” Costa Mesa assistant city manager Susan Price said during a presentation to the City Council this week.

Mercy House, the nonprofit organization that runs the city’s homeless shelter at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene, would maintain and operate the trailers if they are used. The city has already been housing senior and chronically ill homeless people at area hotels, Price said; the costs of this are expected to be reimbursed by the state.

Three buildings in the fairgrounds main mall area are also being considered for emergency medical use to assist with hospital overflow. Officials with the Orange County Health Care Agency toured the site last month to assess the fairgrounds’ infrastructure, power, heating and cooling systems, restroom accessibility and more for possible use in housing hospital patients.

County officials wrote in an email that “based on the initial assessment, medical and nursing experts felt the site could best be used to support less ill patients, who would still require hospitalization.”

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Homeless people, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems, often from living on the streets, are at a higher risk for developing severe forms of COVID-19, health experts say.

Officials across the state, including those in Orange County, have been working on ways to quickly move people indoors amid fears that an outbreak in this vulnerable population could strain an already fragile health system.

County Executive Officer Frank Kim said during a news conference last week that the county was looking at several sites that could eventually care for at-risk unsheltered individuals.

“Speed is of the greatest importance,” he said at the time.

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The county and the Ayres Hotel in Laguna Woods brokered an agreement last week to use the site for homeless housing and medical care. However, that deal quickly withered in the face of strident opposition from residents of Laguna Woods Village, who objected to having homeless patients or the staff who care for them so close to their retirement community, which has thousands of residents who are older than 55.

The news comes as confirmed cases of coronavirus in Orange County continue to grow steadily.

The Orange County Health Care Agency announced 62 new cases of coronavirus infections on Friday, bringing the county’s total to 1,138 — up more than 400 from a week ago. The county’s death toll remained at 17 in the latest update.

To date, more than 12,800 people have been tested for coronavirus countywide. Officials reported that 124 people are hospitalized for the illness, and 57 of those are in intensive care.

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In an effort to limit the spread of the virus, county public health officials this week issued a recommendation “strongly encouraging” employees at businesses open during the pandemic to wear face coverings while at work. Laguna Beach, which has 35 confirmed cases, took the recommendation a step further, issuing an order requiring all essential workers not providing medical services to wear a face covering.

Starting Friday, all essential employees at grocery stores, pharmacies, home improvement stores, gas station convenience stores, restaurants providing take-out or delivery services, banks, savings and loans and credit unions are required to wear a face covering that shield their noses and mouths while at work. Workers are discouraged from using medical-grade equipment such as N95 masks, which are in short supply among healthcare workers.

“This is an additional level of protection for both our residents and our essential workers still on the front lines providing food and critical services to our community,” Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig said in a statement.

Daily Pilot staff writer Lilly Nguyen contributed to this report


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