Roberts: When shelter in place is literally a shelter — or worse
Shelves that once contained toilet paper, paper towels and disinfectant wipes sat empty at a San Jose Target store. File photo.

    The streets are eerily empty today when I look outside the window, except for a scattering of rain-soaked tents where people without homes live. This is Day One of America’s shelter-in-place — or you can call it self-quarantine— as we all hunker down in fear of being exposed to or infected with COVID-19.

    We never thought that the images of hoards of people wearing face masks, officials pointing thermometers at foreheads and the rows of sick people lying in newly-built hospitals in Asia would come to the shores of America.

    But the past week has been filled with long lines of carts outside of Costco, supermarkets with empty shelves, people wearing face masks, announcements of countries shutting their borders and the television blasting the latest number of cases.

    For those of us operating homeless shelters and providing outreach services for people living on the streets, this past week was filled with daily update calls with county public health departments, and new efforts to create guidelines for our staff.

    I never thought we would be training our team on how to identify people with a pandemic virus. Or explaining what is social-distancing. Or what is real news (this virus is not the flu), and what is fake news (this is all just media hype).

    And, reminding everyone to always, always wash your hands. At least twenty seconds.

    The week also consisted of an exhausting search to obtain basic supplies — food, hand sanitizers, toilet paper, masks — for the 1,000 people who sleep in our nine facilities across California.

    We are the frontlines for the most vulnerable people in our population. The very people that this virus is killing at an alarming rate — the elderly, sick and those with a fragile immune system. Sadly, they happen to live in the most uncompromising environment — the streets.

    Furthermore, what to do with the 700 staff across the state who are hearing from cable news and government leaders that schools are shutting down and offices closed. Shouldn’t we be doing the same?

    But we are not a private business that can simply tell every employee to go home and work remotely. We are first responders to those living on the streets.

    Who would feed our people in the shelters? Who would provide much needed counseling and support to frightened people who are battling both homelessness and now a pandemic virus? Who would knock on the apartment door to check on the well-being of a person who recently left the street for their new home? Who would pass out virus guidelines and cleaning supplies to people living in tents on the streets?

    We can’t do this behind the safety of our living room via a laptop computer. There is no remote working for our frontline staff.

    The fear that an outbreak of this virus will spread among our people is real. Every cough or sneeze reminds us that this virus might be as close as just a few feet away. The nursing homes in Washington remind us how quick this virus penetrates.

    Like most workers on the frontlines of homelessness, we also worry about the next wave of homelessness that will hit our streets. With restaurants, hotels, airlines, sports venues, ports and tourist attractions reduced to nearly skeleton crews or closed, reduced hours and even layoffs have become the norm.

    People living on meager wages can’t survive a 20% cut in their hours. And worse, a layoff basically means homelessness.

    Today’s health care system is worried that its infrastructure will not keep up with this pandemic — there are not enough hospital beds and health care workers. I would also say that the infrastructure of today’s homeless care and housing system cannot keep up with the consequences of this virus.

    We know that sometime in the future this virus will taper off, or there will be a vaccine to fight against it. Our empty streets will come alive again with shoppers and tourists, and people doing business.

    But those tents on our streets will still be there, and the situation could get worse now that it is coupled with economic uncertainty and a fast-moving virus.  We as a society need to do all we can to protect the most vulnerable among us – both today during this particular crisis, and tomorrow.

    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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