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Housing & Homelessness

Dozens of homeless people relocated after skid row shelter reports six coronavirus cases

Staff and volunteers practice social distancing as they line up for lunch at Union Rescue Mission on Tuesday.
Staff and volunteers practice social distancing as they line up for lunch at Union Rescue Mission on Tuesday.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

The Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles was scrambling Thursday to relocate dozens of homeless people after the novel coronavirus infected six of its residents.

The spike in cases at the massive mission, located in the heart of skid row, occurred amid a countywide increase of coronavirus infections among the local homeless population. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, announced in her briefing Thursday that there were 33 cases. Most involved people who lived on the streets, rather than in shelters.

The Union Rescue Mission was struck within days of an employee’s death. Gerald Shiroma, who became a driver for the mission after graduating from its third-floor transitional program, contracted the virus in late March and died last week at County-USC Medical Center. Shiroma also lived at the mission.

The Rev. Andy Bales, the mission’s chief executive officer, said that 27 people were moved to quarantine sites as soon as Shiromo tested positive. But there were soon two additional positive cases from the third floor, two from the second floor and one from the first floor.

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The source of the additional infections was not known, he said.

“The loss of a teammate was the toughest blow,” Bales said. “The new reality that we’re all living in is probably the most challenging time in the 128-year history of the Union Rescue Mission.”

In the first case on skid row, an employee of the Union Rescue Mission tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He is being treated at USC Medical Center.

Bales said he expects the mission’s occupancy to drop from 770 to about 500. So far, 19 men who have underlying health issues or are 65 or older were transported Wednesday into a county-run isolation site in Bell Gardens. Another 30 high-risk homeless men will he moved on Thursday.

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Bales said he has had to push back on rumors of a widespread outbreak at the shelter.

“Even with local media,” he said, “I had to assure them that these were just private ambulances the county had lined up to take people to more private lodging.”

To allow for proper social distancing for those who remain, 47 men are being sent to stay in the staff cafeteria and boardroom, which have been turned into a large open space.

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High-risk single women who were sleeping in a tent-like sprung structure erected outside the mission last year will be moved into the family quarantine wing, Symptomatic families will be isolated in the fifth floor boardroom until they can be transported to another location.


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