Roberts: A year like no other—COVID’s impact on homeless services
A homeless man is pictured at St. James Park in San Jose in this file photo. File photo.

A year ago, the rumors were subtle but alarming. A deadly virus began its global spread and landed in California. Whispers of quarantines, stay-at-home orders and airports shutting down traveled quickly.

The homeless services and housing agency I lead had nearly 700 workers spread across the state at the time. We just didn’t know what was going to happen. Texts and phone calls of desperation, bewilderment, rumors and misunderstanding flew across our state between team members.

On March 19, 2020, California’s governor issued a formal stay-at-home order for all residents, except people who performed vital activities or work. “Essential” workers were allowed to leave their homes.

This began a year of the “new normal.”

Our agency serves nearly 20 percent of California’s homeless population. Our team members help people find apartments in Los Angeles, walk riverbanks in San Diego in search of hidden people, case manage people living in Sacramento, provide safe emergency housing in Santa Barbara and Orange County, and ride the L.A. Metro to engage people fearful of sleeping on the streets.

In Santa Clara County, we are currently operating or developing four supportive housing apartment developments, the city of San Jose’s Evans Lane “tiny homes” for families, street outreach and a Rapid Resolution housing intervention program.

Our workers are certainly “essential” to a population most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus—older people, people living with disabilities and people with chronic health conditions—a population of people living on our streets who could not stay at home because they have no home.

Like most homeless service agencies across the state, we set up a crisis management team to navigate this impending health disaster. We started by creating crisis “values” that would guide our decisions and provide stable direction for our teams: make crisis decisions based on our mission of ending homelessness, be transparent with our teams even if decisions were not popular, consider perception as reality, provide quality services and protect our team and the people we serve.

I remember when we started our first weekly all-team video call with a then-unknown application called Zoom. I never imagined talking with hundreds of team members across the state via video. This virtual platform has connected our team members from San Diego to Sacramento and will likely be a permanent fixture of our work.

Although our people were scared, we all concluded that we could not stay home until our homeless neighbors were home. That meant all workers—from street outreach teams to support staff—would be considered essential, would leave their safe homes to operate shelters, support people in housing and return to the office at least on a limited basis, despite the risk of catching the virus.

Then the calls from elected leaders started. They had innovative ideas to meet the scale of this crisis. State leaders wanted to rent out 15,000 hotel/motel rooms from hospitality owners who saw tourism drop significantly, counties wanted to convert empty warehouses into interim housing, and cities wanted to convert their empty convention centers into mass shelters.

And they were calling homeless agencies like ours to operate them.

In a span of six months last year, we opened 13 emergency shelter facilities, helping 1,500 people vulnerable to COVID-19 get into a safe, isolated bed. Our teams met the moment and our agency grew to its current level of nearly 1,000 employees. If they had asked me back in January 2020, before the pandemic, if we would set up two large facilities within a span of months, I would have said “no way.” But with a historic pandemic and a staff who were unwaveringly determined to get as many people off the streets before they died of the virus, creating 13 facilities was not an option.

It was essential.

With a new year and a prospect that this current vaccine campaign will curtail this pandemic, we continue to face fears and embrace hope.

With the hospitality industry devastated, restaurants closed for good and small businesses shuttered, we are fearful that the once gainfully employed workers will lose their stable housing and end up being homeless. We are fearful that a deeper economic pandemic is just around the corner.

We hope that communities across the state will continue to see the urgency of helping our homeless neighbors get off the streets by creating more year-round interim shelters, more permanent housing, more outreach teams to connect isolated people with the services they need. We applaud our elected leaders for extending the federal and state eviction moratoria and for investing in emergency rental assistance to lessen the chances of a new wave of homelessness just as we rise out of this pandemic. But we need to multiply last year’s admirable state and local homelessness efforts by 10 times to truly end the crisis of homelessness.

Regardless of what may lie ahead, I am hopeful because agencies like PATH and the teams of essential workers across the state will continue to leave their own homes in order to help others find theirs.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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