Homeless services answer the challenge to care for those with no home to stay at in coronavirus crisis

Mercy House
A Mercy House Living Centers staff member works to disinfect the homeless shelter at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene in Costa Mesa.
(Courtesy of Mercy House)

While the phrase “stay at home” is a constant refrain during the coronavirus crisis, for some it’s not possible — they have no home.

And for them, being homeless puts them uniquely at risk of the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. Though it may be easier to follow 6-foot social distancing directives outdoors, the lack of hygienic resources such as hand-sanitizing stations can provide opportunity for the virus to spread.

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

At Costa Mesa’s homeless shelter at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene, at least two people have been tested for the coronavirus, and the results were negative, said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House Living Centers, the nonprofit that operates the shelter.

As a precaution, Haynes said, people at the shelter were isolated offsite while awaiting the test results. He did not specify where.

Community leaders are moving to find alternative locations to isolate homeless people.

Newsom released a sweeping executive order a couple of weeks ago that allows the state to commandeer hotels and medical facilities if necessary to treat coronavirus patients.

Orange County announced Sunday that it would repurpose the Joplin Youth Center in Trabuco Canyon as a place to isolate “sheltered homeless persons who are older but not exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19.”

The county also has announced relocation of its cold-weather emergency shelters — typically located at the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana — after Newsom last week mobilized the National Guard to help distribute food and supplies across the state.

Those shelters will be moved to the Independence Park gymnasium in Fullerton and the Salvation Army in Santa Ana.

Costa Mesa

Haynes said the Costa Mesa shelter is in dire need of basic supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, latex gloves, hand soap, sanitary gowns, towels, blankets, non-perishable food items and bread. Mercy House reported a “sharp decrease” in donations last week.

Additionally, the shelter’s food vendors are struggling to find supplies amid shortages and price gouging, Haynes said.

“This means that those who call Mercy House home are not only at risk for the virus but also at risk for not having enough food to get through this national crisis,” according to a Mercy House Facebook post.

Mercy House set up an online donation fund for coronavirus support. Haynes also is asking for volunteers to help sanitize the shelter.

Staff of Mercy House Living Centers, which operates Costa Mesa's homeless shelter, is trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by spacing beds at least three feet apart.
(Courtesy of Mercy House)

The shelter is doing its part to lower the risk of spreading coronavirus: separating beds three to six feet apart and eliminating bunk beds, Haynes said. A couple of weeks ago, shelter staff began encouraging more hand washing and social distancing. Staff members are working remotely as much as possible.

“But for people working the front lines at our emergency shelters, that’s not doable,” Haynes said. “It’s a tough situation.”

Any staff member with “even a hint of symptoms” is sent home, Haynes said. He said he also is working with anyone who needs a mental-health break to find time to rest.

Shelter workers and city and county employees have been in constant contact to address the situation, Haynes said.

At a Costa Mesa City Council meeting last week, Assistant City Manager Susan Price said the city is negotiating a lease extension on the homeless shelter at Lighthouse Church, which is intended to be a temporary site while a permanent shelter is built at 3175 Airway Ave.

Laguna Beach

Laguna’s Alternative Sleeping Location shelter is continuing to operate. Unsheltered men and women are continuing to drop by to pick up necessities and maintain connection to services.

“Our team is working diligently to keep the health and safety of our shelter clients and staff top priority,” said Dawn Price, executive director of Friendship Shelter, which operates the city-owned ASL at 20652 Laguna Canyon Road. “We’re following the guidance of federal and local agencies and taking all appropriate precautions to prevent COVID-19 in our shelter program.

“More specifically, all non-essential meetings have been canceled, we’re increasing cleaning and disinfecting of the shelter’s high-touch areas, and we are doing health screenings for every client, volunteer or staff member who enters the shelter.”

Friendship Shelter staff member Lorene Spiller helps disinfect the Alternative Sleeping Location shelter in Laguna Beach in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
(Courtesy of Friendship Shelter)

The shelter also has implemented recommendations to encourage social distancing by increasing separation among sleeping mats and staggering dinner services.

“We have no reported [coronavirus] cases to date, nor have we seen anyone with symptoms. I’m incredibly proud of our team’s dedication to the health of our community,” Price said.

Huntington Beach

Homeless people in Huntington Beach and those who serve them also are feeling the stress of the coronavirus outbreak.

Eric Mol, 50, who lives out of his Chevrolet Aveo near Edinger Avenue and Gothard Street, said he’s been homeless for 22 years. He said the coronavirus has affected the homeless population in unusual ways.

“A lot of the people who are homeless are concerned because a lot of gyms are shut down,” Mol said. “Now there’s a lot more restrictions on a homeless guy being able to take a shower. There’s also a lot of areas where homeless guys go and plug their phone in, and that’s been cut out too. It’s been an emergency status, and there hasn’t been too much of an answer that I’ve known about where people can plug in their phones.”

Mol frequents HOPE ministry, which operates out of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church on Springdale Street and reaches close to 100 homeless people in the community.

Ministry representative Sue, who declined to give her last name, said it is currently not accepting new homeless clients.

“They can get a week’s worth of food or we can do the day bags,” Sue said. “The week and two-week folks are actually ... a good thing. That means they’ve got someplace to shelter.”

Hygiene bags also are available, featuring items such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, deodorant and shampoo. There’s also a clothing room, but Sue said that was closed last week due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“That’s the closest contact that we have with folks, the clothing room, so that’s closed,” she said. “For the homeless ... I’ll give them the hygiene bags and if I go in there and I find something that they can use, we’ll just bring it out to them.”

Sue has been working at the ministry since 1974, she said, first with her mother and now by herself.

One day last week, however, it nearly had to shut down. Everyone who was scheduled to work the afternoon shift declined to go in, mostly because of fears about the coronavirus.

Sue was left to run the operation alone, she said, since she insists on being there in the afternoon, when many homeless people pick up food for dinner.

“It’s kind of funny to me ... you can’t come here to interact, where there’s very little interaction,” she said. “But you can go to the bank, the grocery store. ... I’m just a little disappointed, but that’s OK. The Lord is providing for what we need, and I don’t want to complain.”

At Refuge Calvary Chapel on Edinger Avenue, Jonathan Ferguson, 39, director of missions and discipleship, said concerns about the coronavirus also have disrupted his church’s homeless outreach.

“We’ve been discussing possibly doing prepackaged bagged lunches and handing them out, at least still providing the meal portion of what we were doing,” Ferguson said. “On Thursday we do a Bible study with them, a hot meal and then we help anyone who is looking to get help to get off the street. We try and help provide them those services.

“If someone is like, ‘I just need a job,’ we haven’t been able to do that during this time, but at least we can get the homeless a meal, if possible. That’s our plan at least.”

He also pointed to the website, where people can find available shelter, food, clothing, laundry and personal hygiene services based on their location.

“There is a whole team of people that are working on it, volunteers that are still willing to come down and say, ‘Listen, I’m going to help. I’m going to do what I can,’” Ferguson said.

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