In the aftermath of a sudden disaster, people come together to help, but everything changes when the disaster is ongoing — and even more so when physically coming together poses medical risks both for communities that need assistance and would-be volunteers. Suddenly, needs shift and those interested in helping out have to adapt their strategies to fit with changing paradigms.
99% Invisible producer Katie Mingle had already been working on a series about unhoused people in the Bay Area for over a year when the current pandemic began to unfold. Suddenly, this vulnerable demographic was cast into the spotlight due to the virulent spread of COVID-19. It is clear from the data that this virus is hitting black and poor communities the hardest. COVID-19 has made American society’s racial and wealth inequities even more obvious. The disease is most dangerous to older and immunocompromised people, two groups to which those experiencing homelessness disproportionately belong. A study from a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA found that homeless people would be twice as likely to be hospitalized as the general population, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die, if they contracted COVID-19.
All over the country, people are scrambling to prevent large scale outbreaks in homeless communities, particularly in some of the places where unhoused people are most visible — encampments and shelters — where social distancing is nearly impossible. Cities and activists are exploring dynamic solutions that are still in flux, ranging from temporary hand-washing stations erected at homeless encampments to ad hoc quarantine rooms in hotels and convention centers.
Emergency Operation Centers
Jen Loving is the CEO of an organization called Destination: Home that works on both ending and preventing homelessness in Santa Clara County. Loving has worked in homeless services for over 20 years, and her organization has been around since 2008, but in light of the pandemic, everything changed. Destination: Home was enlisted into a chain of command emergency response system called the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Every county in California has one. An EOC typically takes control of all crisis responses in the event of an earthquake, or a flood, such as coordinating the deployment of food, shelter, and medical supplies — but this is the first time in Loving’s career that the EOC was being activated for a pandemic.
With the EOC serving as the primary disaster resources liaison to the state and federal government, Loving has observed a drastic shift in how homelessness services usually work in her county. She has been opening mass shelters to create space for more social distancing as well as facilitating the distribution of sanitation supplies. Her organization also raised an $11 million financial assistance fund to distribute to people in her county who have lost employment due to COVID-19 and are at risk of becoming homeless. Within three days of launching the fund, they received 1400 applications, pouring in so fast they crashed the organization’s server. Loving estimates that they’ll need about $100 million more for their fund just to keep people in Santa Clara County housed and fed right now. Funding is also just one part of a larger challenge in these difficult times.
For the most part, homeless services across the county come largely from nonprofit organizations and volunteer groups. As the crisis of homelessness collides with the crisis of the coronavirus, Destination: Home, as well as many other organizations, are facing the sudden erosion of volunteer support. For the most part, inventories are shrinking. There are fewer hands available now that before. And this is drastically impacting the speed at which masks can be distributed or the rate at which money from Jen’s $11 million fund can be doled out.
On April 3, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan to secure 15,000 hotel rooms across California for homeless people. The project is a county-state partnership, where EOC’s at the county level and people like Jen Loving are making calls to hotel owners in the area and negotiating with them to rent rooms to the state at a reduced rate. But for California’s homeless population of at least 150,000, many activists are saying 15,000 hotel rooms isn’t nearly enough. In a state of emergency, the governor and all mayors have the authority to commandeer the use of private hotels and then work out a fair price later, in front of a judge. These activists have been calling on San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed to exercise that power and proactively commandeer hotels for the homeless in San Francisco.
Worry On Top of Worry
For unhoused persons, COVID-19 can feel like one additional thing to be worried about on top of poverty and daily survival, which are always more front-of-mind than the possibility of infection. A lot of the ways homeless people make money are not possible right now; some used to collect cans to sell at recycling centers, and those are mostly closed. Panhandling is more difficult.
In Berkeley, one particular camp has an extremely dedicated activist named Andrea Henson as its guardian. She’s raising money through a GoFundMe and handing out things like hand sanitizer and masks. Henson has been supporting this camp in many different ways since September 2018, but her role and involvement has changed since the arrival of COVID-19. With even more limited access to income than usual, many residents are increasingly at risk of going hungry, and Henson has been spending her mornings bagging food.
Meanwhile, there is new data coming out every day along with new challenges and potential solutions both in and beyond the Bay Area, both from the bottom up and the top down. For those working to make life better for unhoused populations, the target is ever-shifting.