Roberts: The ultimate competition for help during COVID-19
Kristine Gardner Ramsey, a San José Spotlight columnist who was unhoused for nine years before finding housing a year ago, is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Rachel Leven.

    You could probably call what is happening on our streets a game of survivor, but it is not a reality television show where the losers go home. I wish that, when people who are homeless “lose” the game of surviving on the streets, they could just go home.

    Instead, those of us on the front lines are petrified that if our homeless neighbors are eliminated from this terrible, unjust survival “game” of homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, their life is eliminated.

    Weeks ago, when this terrible virus began to spread, and cases and death rates seemed to be “under control” (at least that’s what the politicians said), I was on the streets of one of California’s urban neighborhoods with a PATH street outreach team. We walked around, spoke with our homeless neighbors and distributed COVID-19 fact sheets, face masks and care packages of food and cleaning products.

    Although the empty streets were under the state’s shelter-in-place mandate, our homeless neighbors congregated outside bunched together, certainly not adhering to the 6-foot social distancing recommendations. I remember asking an older woman who was pushing a cart of her life’s possessions if she would stay in a nearby shelter. She said she was too afraid to go, even with a deadly disease haunting the streets. Others sat in a city park dismissing the disease as a hoax.

    Driving home that afternoon, I stopped to refuel my car in a nearby suburb not typically known for a high concentration of homeless people. A man, clearly homeless, asked drivers for money. Most thought he was a nuisance preventing them from getting home quickly. But I saw a man who was older in years, could barely communicate with clear sentences and with a significant limp.

    I kept thinking he was in the most vulnerable category for catching this disease and losing this tragic game of life and death. He’d walked to the intersection when I was compelled to do something. I didn’t know any street outreach workers close by and knew this man wouldn’t wait. All I could do was dart to the corner and help him cross the street while cars honked at us to hurry up. I slipped some money into his jacket pocket when we arrived across the street and left.

    People probably thought I was an ultra-liberal activist who wears compassion on his sleeve. But I know there is a game of life and death occurring on our streets during this pandemic.

    It used to be that our homeless neighbors could get a good meal at the local feeding program or food banks. Today, most housed volunteers are at home under quarantine, unable to volunteer to feed the homeless. There’s a minuscule amount of food for our homeless neighbors, but outside the food banks there are mile-long lines of cars filled with housed people waiting for food.

    Although health care was available for people who are homeless before the pandemic, now the medical response is “all hands on deck” for housed people struggling with COVID-19. Unless our homeless neighbors test positive for the virus, their access to health care has closed significantly, even if they’re struggling with cancer, HIV/AIDS or any other debilitating chronic illness. Our outreach workers have practically become street nurses for them.

    As the number of people — housed and unhoused — testing positive for COVID-19 increases, more housing resources are being made available for our homeless neighbors. Shelters are being set up and hotels and motels are being converted into emergency housing for people struggling with homelessness.

    Now, armed with their personal protection equipment, our outreach teams are outside finding people hiding in riverbeds, along freeways and in the nooks and crannies of civilization, begging them to come inside. There is certainly more fear on the streets than just weeks ago, as the number of cases and deaths rise.

    The sad mix of COVID-19 and homelessness is not a game or a reality television show. It is real. There is a scramble, a competition for food, health care and protection.

    But thankfully there are front line workers out on the streets, staffing shelters and operating programs who have decided not to seek respite in the comfort of their own homes.

    Their goal is to help our homeless neighbors survive.

    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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