Coronavirus hitting California’s homeless population could be what finally breaks hospitals


The catastrophic potential is painful to consider: State models show that 60,000 homeless people could be hit by the novel coronavirus, with up to 20% of them needing hospitalization.

That would mean California would need 12,000 hospital beds just for those living on the streets — a formidable task for a state that is already struggling to find extra capacity to manage the pandemic before it’s too late and hospitals become overwhelmed by too many patients.

“That creates a deep point of anxiety for the existing population, but moreover for our healthcare delivery system,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday evening.


With 108,000 people living outdoors in California, many older, with weakened immune systems and preexisting conditions, Newsom and state health officials are dramatically stepping up efforts to curtail what was the state’s biggest crisis before the novel coronavirus hit: tens of thousands of people living in street encampments.

Now, two catastrophes are colliding with appalling speed and consequence.

A homeless man sleeps on the Main Street bridge in downtown Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

“People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” Newsom said. “Helping these residents is critical to protecting public health, flattening the curve and slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

To help accomplish that, Newsom on Wednesday announced $150 million in emergency funding to quickly move homeless people indoors — an action meant to protect both a vulnerable population and a medical system at risk of being overwhelmed.

The governor said $100 million in funding will go directly to local jurisdictions — including Los Angeles — to boost shelter capacity and increase emergency housing.

An additional $50 million will be aimed at buying travel trailers and leasing hotels, motels and other facilities in an effort to provide space for those without homes to practice social distancing or be quarantined if they test positive for the virus or have symptoms of COVID-19.


With social distancing now the focus of the state’s coronavirus strategy and about 108,000 Californians living on the street, homeless encampments present a significant problem for containing the spread of the disease. Homeless people are at especially high risk for serious cases because they often have underlying health conditions and live in settings where proper sanitation, including hand washing, is difficult.

The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in California.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have released guidelines for handling the coronavirus in encampments and shelters, but cities and counties have largely been slow to act.

Health experts are worried about what effect the pandemic would have on healthcare systems if it expands into the homeless population. Some fear that if the coronavirus hits encampments or shelters, it could travel quickly and fiercely — as has been seen in other vulnerable populations, such as seniors living in nursing homes. With hospitals already bracing for overflow numbers of COVID-19 patients, an outbreak in an encampment could be devastating.

Newsom said the state has identified more than 950 lodging facilities across California that are appropriate for homeless housing and added that the list is being distributed to counties.

The state also is attempting to gain access to some of those properties on its own: On Tuesday, Newsom announced that two hotels near Oakland International Airport had been leased, providing a total of 393 rooms that would be under the control of Alameda County.

“The governor’s action today provides a big boost to our urgent efforts to stop coronavirus from spreading among vulnerable members of our homeless population,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, co-chair of Newsom’s statewide task force on homelessness. “We’ll use it to quickly expand our sheltering capacity, provide emergency services and isolate the sick.”

Newsom also announced that the state had purchased more than 1,300 trailers from the federal government and private vendors to provide quarantine sites. Those trailers will be deployed to California’s largest urban centers if shelters are at capacity and have people who are sick or positive for the coronavirus.

“California is deploying massive resources to get these vulnerable residents safely into shelter, removing regulatory barriers and securing trailers and hotels to provide immediate housing options for those most at risk,” Newsom said in a statement.

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March 19, 2020

The governor also signed an executive order Wednesday that streamlines how counties and cities can spend homeless dollars during the pandemic and suspends some regulations for building shelters and homeless facilities with the emergency funds.

In a separate action Monday, he authorized local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners, slow foreclosures and protect against utility shutoffs for Californians affected by the outbreak and its economic effects.

On Wednesday, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a new plan to provide shelters for older homeless people, who are most at risk of dying of COVID-19. In addition, L.A. has already moved to increase access to sanitation stations and supplies. San Francisco has taken similar action.

But, in planning for what an outbreak would mean, many service providers and people living on the streets say it’s not enough. The number of homeless people 62 and older in Los Angeles County has grown by 8% in recent years, according to the latest point-in-time count.