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Editorial: COVID is surging among homeless people. L.A. needs to do something about it.

Los Angeles Police Sgt. Shannon Geaney checks in on a group of homeless people
Los Angeles Police Sgt. Shannon Geaney checks in on a group of homeless people and provides them with guidance and support on Oct. 29, 2019.
(Los Angeles Times)

For months during the pandemic, homeless people in Los Angeles seemed less susceptible to contracting COVID-19 — a combination of being spurned by others (the ultimate social distancing) and living by themselves in tents on sidewalks. It also helped that the city and county provided up to 4,000 motel and hotel beds to particularly vulnerable homeless people through a program called Project Roomkey.

All that has changed now. The homeless population is having its own alarming surge in COVID cases. And 60% of those cases are in shelters of all kinds — from vast emergency shelters to the smaller-scale ones created under L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s A Bridge Home program. Nowhere a homeless person goes is completely protected from the virus these days.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 71 COVID-related deaths among the county’s roughly 66,000 homeless people. Dozens of encampments have had at least one case, as have some of the larger Roomkey hotels. The positivity rate just among sheltered homeless people went from under 1% in late November to about 5.8% at the end of December. That’s a dramatic increase, even if the rate remains much lower than the current general population positivity rate of about 21%.

The uptick in cases underscores the urgency of moving homeless people not into group settings, but into individual motel and hotel rooms or apartments.

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Heidi Behforouz, the medical director for the county’s Housing for Health program, says shelter operators have done a remarkable job slashing the occupancy rates of their shelters to make them safer. And some shelters already provide more space per person and have good air filtration systems. But they are no substitute for individual rooms, which are in too short supply.

So far, about 1,800 former hotel rooms and apartments have been bought in the county through a program called Project Homekey, which was subsidized by federal COVID relief funds. (The city spent about $90 million of its COVID funds to buy 1,000 of those units.)

But that’s not enough. More state or federal money needs to flow into the county for the acquisition of more hotels, motels and apartment buildings.

Meanwhile, local agencies and nonprofits are helping homeless people who want to stay in place by supplying heavier tents or tarpaulins to help insulate their camps, food and hygiene kits. But encampments also need portable toilets and hand-washing stations.

Deciding between staying outside in the winter or coming inside to a group shelter at the height of the pandemic is a grim choice that no one should have to make. It’s up to Los Angeles officials to bring people into a safe place.


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