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.
“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.
The City of Santa Monica closed the Santa Monica Pier in an attempt to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. Very few people were on the beach in Santa Monica as the epidemic continues. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Volunteer Nagma Shakur, 16, left, hugs her “Grannie” as she helps senior shoppers with their carts at the Grocery Outlet Bargain Market in Altadena. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
People walk up the ramp, exiting the secure area at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
David Barker, 56, is visiting with his friend living in a tent on skidrow in Los Angeles. Barker, who is not homeless, works in the area. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)
Dr. Dallas Weaver, 79, and his wife, Janet Weaver, 75, of Huntington Beach, walk on the Huntington pier. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
Seniors, including Eileen Oda Leaf, 67, left, and her husband Dave Leaf, 67, right, both wearing protective masks, line up outside Gelson’s Market in Manhattan Beach early on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
Roberta Tabor, 66, of Hermosa Beach, has her ID checked by store director Dennis Sullivan at Gelson’s Market in Manhattan Beach on Wednesday. The store is doing a “seniors shopping hour” where seniors 65+ can go grocery shopping before anybody else. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
Seniors shop at Gelson’s Market in Manhattan Beach on Wednesday. The store is doing a “seniors shopping hour” where seniors can go grocery shopping before the store opens to the general public. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
Dr. Mark V. Morocco oversees testing at UCLA Medical Center where people can drive up and get tested if they have the symptoms. Morocco listens to a female patient’s lungs through the car window. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
HOPICS outreach worker Ralph Gomez tosses a clipboard for a signature to homeless client Davis Soto, right, taking care to stay at least six feet away during outreach in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Medical personnel screen patients outside the emergency room at Loma Linda University Health during the coronavirus pandemic. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)
A nurse takes the vital signs of a woman in a medical tent outside the hospital on Catalina. (Francine Orr/Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)
An employee of the Trader Joe’s store in Monrovia tells customers waiting in line that it would open doors to everyone at 9 a.m., not just seniors, who arrived believing doors would open earlier to older residents, as some of the people were told by employees and it was reported. Some grocery outlets were offering special morning hours of shopping to accommodate older residents. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
Kevin Ezeh, protected with face mask and gloves, addresses the Los Angeles City Council meeting standing under a tent erected outside City Hall. A television livestreamed video of the meeting and the public offered comments remotely. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
Orange County Undersheriff Bob Peterson listens during a board of supervisors discussion on combating the coronavirus in Santa Ana. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
Dr. Mark V. Morocco oversees the testing at UCLA Medical Center. Testing for Covid-19 is going on at UCLA Medical Center, where people can drive up and get tested if they have the symptoms. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
A large tent is installed for public attendance at Tuesday’s Los Angeles City Council meeting. The public was not allowed in the council chamber. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
Shoppers queue up ahead of the Los Feliz Costco opening for business on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
Muhammad Faruq, an Uber driver, picks his ride Sotero Reyes, left, and Cristian Eguia, visitors from Houston, all in protective masks, from downtown Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
Volunteer Rachel Figueroa, serves a free lunch to go to Destiny Mendez, with her mother, Estefany, at the Dream Center in Los Angeles. LAUSD students can get free breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Dream Center, Monday through Friday. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
Emma Bradley, left, and her husband, Samuel Bradley, of Palmdale are walking up the ramp to catch the Metrolink in Union Sation in Los Angeles. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)
Medical personnel surround a car that is going through a coronavirus drive-thru test clinic at the San Mateo County Event Center. Drive-thru test clinics for COVID-19 are popping up across the country as more tests become available. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
From left, Josh Akamine, of Oahu, Hawaii; Madison Shine of Oahu; Matthew Valencia of Los Altos and Dani Ikeda visit L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
Normally bustling Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. is open only for take out. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
L.A. has banned restaurants from offering seating at places such as Grand Central Market. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
Carlos Perez, a worker at Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles sits in the empty restaurant. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
A line at the Martin B. Retting gun store in Culver City on Sunday extends out the door and around the corner. (Francine Orr / The Times)
A guest wears a mask in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland on Thursday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Students hug as they are let out of school at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 13, 2020. The school has 2,623 students who live in 94 different zip codes, some of whom travel upwards of 30 miles to school on 24 different school bus routes. 221 school staff live in 88 zip codes. Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that schools will be closed due to the coronavirus. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times) (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
Blake Anderson, left, a freshman, walks with his father Oree Anderson, as school is let out at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. LAUSD announced that schools will be closed due to the Coronavirus. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
Students leave John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles at the end of the school day on Friday, Mar. 13, 2020. LAUSD announced it will shut down beginning Monday. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times )
Alexandria Casserly crosses the street while looking for toilet paper in downtown Los Angeles. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)
A crew member stands on the stern of a cruise ship docked at the Port of Los Angeles. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Two children look at movie posters in the lobby of the Arclight theater Thursday in Manhattan Beach. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Disneyland guests wearing ponchos pass the Marketplace inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge on Thursday. Disneyland and California Adventure will temporarily close in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
People shop at the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Disneyland guests take photos in front of the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Airline workers take precautions at Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles on Thursday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
An airport worker cleans a railing at Tom Bradley International Terminal. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Two people arrive at Knott’s Berry Farm on Thursday in Buena Park. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Cab drivers wait for riders at the Long Beach Airport. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A woman claims her luggage at he Long Beach Airport. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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.
Anita Chabria is a California columnist for the Los Angeles Times, based in Sacramento. Before joining The Times, she worked for the Sacramento Bee as a member of its statewide investigative team and previously covered criminal justice and City Hall.