As Santa Clara County undergoes expansive measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, questions remain about how people experiencing homelessness will receive information and resources.
With an increasing homeless population totaling more than 9,700 countywide, and close to 8,000 unsheltered per the 2019 homeless census, officials say they’re increasing outreach and resources related to COVID-19 for those living on the streets.
But advocates and people who are homeless say that’s not the case.
There have been 91 confirmed cases of coronavirus and two deaths countywide as of Saturday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said older people and people with serious chronic medical conditions are more susceptible to severe illness or death from coronavirus. County officials also said people living outdoors are at greater risk because of deteriorated health associated with seasonal flu as well as the pandemic.
According to the 2019 count, 40 percent of homeless people in the county were over the age of 50. Many had underlying medical issues.
“It’s hard for us to find out about it because we usually don’t have TVs, unless we illegally hook up the power, which I don’t, or we get a radio,” Glenda Morgan, 58, said in a distinct South Carolinian accent outside her encampment in the Guadalupe River Park Thursday.
Inside Morgan’s nine-person encampment — complete with a kitchen and communal area with a sofa — she has been receiving hand sanitizers, cleaning wipes, toilet paper, clothes, blankets and towels from Sleeping Bags for the Homeless of Silicon Valley, a nonprofit organization that helps unsheltered people.
Her primary way of getting information is by radio, which is how Morgan said she had heard updates about Italy’s rapid spread of coronavirus. Her encampment doesn’t have portable toilets and wash stations, something advocate Shaunn Cartwright said they’ve been requesting to no avail.
On Saturday, a toilet and wash station were finally delivered.
Despite the lack of resources and communication, Morgan is not concerned about getting the coronavirus. She leaves the pandemic in God’s hands, she said. “That’s where I usually leave everything. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. But if not, I’ll survive another day, cause I just live day by day,” she said. “Tomorrow’s never promised.”
County and city efforts
Santa Clara County Executive Officer Jeff Smith told reporters Monday — when the county banned mass gatherings of more than 1,000 people — that the $2 billion county health care system can serve homeless people, regardless of their ability to pay or citizenship status.
The county has since limited gatherings to no more than 100 people.
Paul Lorenz, CEO of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, told county lawmakers Tuesday that health officials are visiting encampments of 50 people before going to those with 20 or more “so we can coordinate our resources and have the most impact,” he said.
Procedures are in place to screen for the flu, he said, and officials will expand that to coronavirus symptoms, which can quarantine or isolate people.
Ky Le, director of the Office of Supportive Housing, also discussed coordination efforts through ongoing calls with agencies to expand resources, including more shelters, isolation areas and supplies. Meanwhile, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced temporarily stopping homeless sweeps, along with halting evictions.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Supervisor Dave Cortese also called for stopping sweeps. Cortese asked about testing people living in encampments and other vulnerable populations for fever and other symptoms in an “all-hands-on-deck” approach.
“Those practices have been in place just as we would manage any patient within the health care system,” Lorenz responded. “I think the bigger question is what can we do to further slow the spread in these populations.”
Lorenz said most homeless people who have been treated at Valley Medical Center have not traveled or been exposed to the disease, but that will change as coronavirus spreads locally.
More education needed
On Thursday morning, longtime advocate Robert Aguirre sat in a mostly empty Martin Luther King Jr. Library, at the same table where the local homeless union regularly meets. He said more education is needed and encouraged county officials to work with trusted advocates to distribute information.
“In a way, this COVID-19 is a curse and a blessing because what it’s done is shown a light on the situation,” Aguirre said, “so that people who are housed might now start to understand the situation because it’s now a threat to them. Unfortunately, that’s what it takes for people to become empathetic about the situation.”
Homeless advocates have proposed measures such as distributing materials and information about coronavirus, along with better screening for coronavirus symptoms.
Grace Solutions, a San Jose nonprofit that provides shelter at Grace Baptist Church, has expanded its cleaning and education protocols. Workers there also plan to begin screening the 40 people who typically stay at the shelter each night for fever, according to Executive Director Phil Mastrocola. The church can shelter 50 people.
Mastrocola said it’s important to keep people together and indoors because “there is a woeful lack of sanitation for people who live in the streets.” He called for public restrooms, trash collection and wash stations.
“People need basic sanitary services,” Mastrocola said. “There is a vested interest of public health and safety to keep everybody healthy, to keep everyone clean, to keep everyone in a place where they have access to basic health and sanitation.”
Geneva Strickland, 53, has asthma and was homeless for six years before recently moving into San Jose’s Villas on the Park, a new permanent supportive housing development. Now she’s facing an illness that caused her to lose her voice.
“Actually, I feel like I’m the only one worried about it,” Strickland said in a text message. “Only a few people have talked about it with me.”
Her main source of information has been social media and television. Strickland said friends who are homeless want to “buckle down” but lack the supplies to do so.
“Overall, I don’t think the government is doing enough for anyone,” she wrote. “This really is serious for people not so healthy.”
Cartwright said she and other advocates will distribute masks, gloves, trash bags and sanitizer to encampments, with resources provided by the city and county.
Mastrocola added that people need to remember that coronavirus impacts everyone, regardless of wealth or housing.
“This virus brings us together or, at the very least, to show there are no real barriers,” he said. “There are no barriers to our needs. We all have the same needs.”