Shaw: South Bay homeless shelter ignores COVID mask mandates
The Sunnyvale homeless shelter is open year-round and serves up to 140 people. File photo.

The best ways to protect people from contracting COVID is through vaccination and mask wearing. Getting vaccinated is your personal choice and no one can make you get it, but not getting vaccinated will severely affect your life if you plan to work and live around other people. However, wearing a mask is something that you can be made to do, if it is mandated by the county you live in, and especially if you live or work in a building that is owned by the county.

The Sunnyvale shelter is owned by the county of Santa Clara. People who live in congregate environments are especially susceptible to being exposed to COVID, given so many people are in a single location. The same can be said for nursing homes and jails. There’s been a surge in COVID cases at nursing homes, at the jail and the Sunnyvale shelter. Several clients of the Sunnyvale shelter come directly from the jail re-entry program and there is a large population of elderly and disabled clients at the shelter.

I’ve been concerned and vocal about the lack of enforcement of the mask mandate at the shelter for months, given the amount of new individuals that come in and out. Also, people are not required to be vaccinated to stay at the shelter, which is fine, as long as they wear masks. That fact that there are unvaccinated clients in the shelter should make mask wearing a zero tolerance policy for everyone in the building. The county mandate for the building is that everyone must wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. But this mandate has been taken as optional by too many people who only wear masks when it is convenient for them.

I’ve seen individuals receive numerous write ups for not wearing their masks and still remain at the shelter. After a while other individuals see that write ups are nothing but empty threats, so they too decide that wearing masks is optional. Then employees eventually stop giving out write ups, because apparently there are no consequences associated with placing the shelter clients’ health in danger.

When I ask why individuals are allowed to stay after repeatedly violating the public health mandate, the answer is always because the HomeFirst upper management won’t allow them to be exited. This places the employees, who actually do the work management gets paid for, in a position of powerlessness. There have been many instances of me getting into heated arguments with individuals who sit in a row watching television maskless. And I get the “whatever, f-you” message.

Some of the individuals who consistently violate the mask mandate were placed in a hotel for quarantine last week because two of them contracted COVID and exposed others to it. More than a dozen individuals have been placed in hotels within the past week for either having COVID or being exposed to the individuals with it.

I participated in a monthly call on Oct. 24 held by the county concerning the shelter operations, and I brought up my concerns regarding the mask mandate not being enforced and lack of procedures regarding violations. I was told by the county that they know nothing about this and that I’d have to ask HomeFirst about its enforcement of rules at the shelter. That was disappointing.

On Oct. 30, I wrote an email to HomeFirst’s upper management, shelter management and the county, expressing how HomeFirst is not taking the health and safety of its clients seriously. I was hoping for a response of “How can we help?” from HomeFirst upper management — but I received, “How do you know we’re not giving our employees the power to enforce the rules?” Again, that was disappointing. But after that email, I received assurance that HomeFirst management would allow the Sunnyvale shelter to write up individuals and remove them if they refuse to wear a mask.

Notices were placed on everyone’s beds on Nov. 1 saying individuals would receive write up warnings and be removed from the shelter (for at least one night) after multiple warnings for not wearing masks. People weren’t happy with me about that, but I thought, at least, there was some sort of progress. I was mistaken.

Multiple times a night, staff came to the men’s area and said, “Put your masks on, or you’re going to be written up” to the same individuals over and over again, instead of handing out write ups.

HomeFirst likes to use the “low barrier shelter” excuse when someone questions the lack of enforcement, but it’s not the low barrier clients causing the problems. It’s the individuals who just don’t care about the health and safety of others. You can’t get into the shelter without wearing a mask because the temperature scanner will record a violation. But once past the scanner, the rules are moot. So after voicing my concerns and being assured things would change, things didn’t.

I advised a staffer from Supervisor Joe Simitian’s office of the situation and asked if his office would look into it. I don’t expect to hear back for about 3-4 weeks.

HomeFirst will say that it is doing everything it can to protect clients and staff and enforcing the rules. But this debacle with the latest COVID outbreak proves that it doesn’t. I still observe mask mandate violations that are not written up, even after this recent COVID incident.

When I work on construction sites, masks are mandatory and individuals receive warnings for not wearing them — and eventually get kicked out for non-compliance. The same approach should be universal in a congregate setting. Acquiescence to the few doesn’t protect the health of the many. And with no vaccine mandate at the shelter, the mask mandate rules are the only method of protecting individuals.

Another thing that should be mandated is COVID testing. If you’re staying in a congregate setting, you have to accept personal responsibility and that includes routine COVID testing to ensure you’re not spreading the virus to your shelter-mates or staff.

To create a safer environment for all, particularly at shelters like Sunnyvale with a more fragile population, there is no head scratching needed to figure out how this outbreak occurred. It’s a lack of genuine dedication to protecting clients, which is contrary to what you hear from all the nonprofits. And it’s the continual dismissal of the voices of the homeless, in favor of those voices lobbying for county contracts. Some intestinal fortitude is needed by HomeFirst–and it starts at the top.

Jerome Shaw is homeless and living at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s a leader in the Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative — a union of homeless shelter residents in the region — and is part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.

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