Los Angeles will convert 42 of its recreation centers into temporary shelters for homeless residents, providing 6,000 new beds in an effort aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday.
The city is looking in the initiative’s first phase to open 1,600 shelter beds at 13 recreation centers by Monday, with beds provided by the American Red Cross, Garcetti said.
The initiative comes as an array of city buildings — libraries, aquatic centers, cultural facilities and even City Hall — remain closed to the public, part of the city’s effort to reduce the number of new infections. It would more than double the number of shelter beds available in Los Angeles, said Alex Comisar, a Garcetti spokesman.
Garcetti said the move to repurpose dozens of recreation centers is needed because homeless residents are at greater risk during the pandemic.
“This isn’t about forcing people onto a bus,” the mayor said during a live Facebook briefing on the city’s response to the virus. “This is about letting people know if you stay out here, you are at great risk of potentially dying.”
Garcetti made his announcement just one day before lawyers for Los Angeles city and county are slated to appear at an emergency court hearing on efforts to keep the virus from proliferating throughout the region’s homeless encampments.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter scheduled the status conference in a federal case filed by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a group that alleges the city and county have failed in their duty to protect public health and safety and to provide shelter to people living on the streets.
Don Steier, chairman of the alliance, called the recreation centers proposal a “stopgap measure” and said it would not keep his group from pressing ahead with its lawsuit.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that what has been lacking is political courage to deal with the problems on the street,” Steier said. “And maybe now the mayor has found some.”
Garcetti said work on opening a significant number of shelter beds has been under discussions for 2½ weeks — well before the judge scheduled Thursday’s hearing. Several council members have already voiced support for the mayor’s plan, which is expected to cost $6 million over eight weeks, not including salaries and other employee costs.
“Using city facilities like recreation centers to get our most vulnerable neighbors off the streets rapidly will help slow the spread of the virus, reducing strain on our healthcare system and protecting the health and safety of the housed and unhoused alike,” said Councilman Mike Bonin.
Still, one critic of the city’s approach toward homelessness questioned the wisdom of the proposal. Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., said he believes homeless Angelenos would be safer if they were placed in separate quarters, in such buildings as motels, hotels and dormitories.
Elected officials have been scrambling in recent weeks to craft a response to the threat posed by the virus among unhoused residents.
The City Council voted Tuesday to suspend enforcement of a law requiring that tents erected on sidewalks come down during daytime hours, saying such a move would slow the advance of the virus. During that meeting, the head of the Homeless Services Authority said public health officials have recommended homeless Angelenos be able to shelter in place in their tents during a pandemic.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $150 million in emergency funding to move homeless people indoors quickly, an action meant to protect a vulnerable population and a medical system at risk of being overwhelmed.
Garcetti said he expects state and federal funds will ultimately cover much of the cost of the recreation center initiative. Under the proposal, the city would assign 28 workers to each 100-person shelter, including staffers from such agencies as the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Public Health.
County homelessness officials are already identifying 4,000 unhoused people considered the most vulnerable to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 because of their age and preexisting medical conditions, Garcetti said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the majority of COVID-19 deaths have occurred among people who are 60 or older and have underlying health conditions.
Outreach workers will be checking on homeless people who decide to stay outside to ensure they are practicing social distancing, Garcetti said. The city will also advise homeless residents that they need to space their tents at least six feet apart, he added.
Times staff writer Anita Chabria contributed to this report.