San Jose advocates provide supplies to help homeless fight coronavirus
Volunteers Huy Tran and Karen Gillette discuss backpack distribution at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose. Photo by Rachel Leven.

    While most people are huddled indoors because of the novel coronavirus, activist Shaunn Cartwright instead found herself on Friday headed to a San Jose homeless encampment. She’s done it countless times before. But now she’s there to ask a potentially life-saving question.

    “Has anybody come by to talk to you about the virus?” Cartwright asked.

    It’s the first of several questions she’ll ask Patrick Fletcher, a 49-year-old man wearing a mask over his nose and mouth, standing on the sidewalk near his tent. She’ll ask what precautions he’s taking against the virus, how many people live in his camp. After a few minutes, when Fletcher says he’s been learning about the virus on the news and is doing his best to keep his hands clean, Cartwright hands over backpacks for each person in his cluster of tents on the corner of East Santa Clara Street and North 11th Street in San Jose.

    “There’s hand sanitizer, there’s masks, there’s gloves,” Cartwright said. “And if you hang onto the bottles, we’re going to try to refill them.”

    Volunteer Shaunn Cartwright gives a backpack with coronavirus safety information, hand sanitizer, masks and more to Patrick Fletcher in San Jose, Calif. Photo by Rachel Leven.

    Cartwright is one of about two dozen volunteers who are trying to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus in homeless camps by distributing similar backpacks. These packs include information about what the virus is, how to protect oneself and what to do if they’re having symptoms. So far, volunteers have given out nearly 270 packs to unsheltered individuals and the groups that serve them.

    The task is important and urgent, Cartwright and other advocates said. In Santa Clara County, there are more than 9,700 homeless individuals. In San Jose alone, the homeless population has skyrocketed over the last few years to nearly 6,200. People in these camps can be at increased risk from the coronavirus and may not know how serious the virus is.

    Once the pandemic hits a camp, advocates worry, it could spread rapidly.

    Santa Clara County is the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in California. So far, one homeless individual has died from the virus here, the county’s Public Health Department told San José Spotlight in an emailed statement Friday. The department didn’t respond to questions about how many homeless individuals were hospitalized with the coronavirus.

    The city and county have taken several steps to keep people from becoming homeless during the pandemic and to expand housing for the most vulnerable unsheltered individuals. And when the homeless person passed away from coronavirus, county officials told San José Spotlight they screened 60 members of the affected community for symptoms and tested nine individuals for the virus. All were negative, according to the county.

    But there’s more to do. Homeless individuals, including Fletcher, told this news organization they have barely seen city or county employees over the last month, let alone received needed supplies.

    So Cartwright and other volunteers, including some unsheltered people, stepped up 10 days ago.

    Cartwright, employment lawyer Huy Tran and others solicited donations for things like backpacks and tampons from groups including Community Seva and HomeFirst. The city and county provided masks and sanitizer and will soon provide solar phone chargers.

    A trained microbiologist put together protocols to ensure donations are handled safely and to educate volunteers and homeless residents about the virus. The group has a spreadsheet tracking what materials go to which camps and are collecting phone numbers of people at the camps so they can follow up.

    Volunteers are also offering their materials to other community groups who need them, provided a representative comes to a training first. The group will pack their next set of backpacks on Sunday and distribute them Monday.

    “For people on the streets, they feel like they’re being left to die,” Cartwright said, driving her silver mini-van with more backpacks inside. “The willingness to turn a blind eye to homelessness has created this huge unhoused population. And now, it’s that same unhoused population that nobody knows what to do with (in a crisis) that is going to target them more than anybody else.”

    People can send checks or cash to COVID Kits C/O Grace Solutions, 484 E. San Fernando Street, San Jose, CA 95112. Individuals can also donate online at with a memo line that states “COVID Kits.”

    Contact Rachel Leven at [email protected] or follow @rachelpleven on Twitter.

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