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Outreach workers in San Diego are calling the city’s plan to bring more than 800 homeless individuals into a temporary shelter in the San Diego Convention Center amid the coronavirus outbreak “a powder keg” that could permit the contagion to rapidly spread among one of the most vulnerable segments of the population.
City officials in San Diego on Wednesday opened the doors of the convention center to 829 homeless people who previously had been staying in shelters, and the city could eventually have up to 1,500 people living there. While living conditions at the center will be less cramped than in shelters, some homeless outreach workers say even one positive case of COVID-19 could wreak havoc on the people staying on the convention center’s floor.
“Bewildering is just one adjective to use to describe putting a thousand souls in an open congregate shelter like this during a public health crisis,” Chris Megison, the founder of the homeless outreach organization Solutions for Change, told Fox News. “It’s a powder keg in there.”
Megison added: “We are all are hoping and praying that nobody dies, but if somebody does die its involuntary manslaughter as far as we’re concerned because this is irresponsible.”
Video from inside the convention center showed rows of military-style cots spaced about 6 feet apart lining the entire width of the main hall’s floor. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that homeless encampments should not be cleared out during the pandemic unless individual housing units are available and that residents of encampments should set up their tents with at least 12 feet of space per individual.
Megison said that he has reached out to San Diego County lawmakers that he knows to express his concerns, but said that while they agreed with his worries, so far nothing has been done.
California is home to half of the country’s street homeless population — about 151,000 people in all — and state and local lawmakers have already thrown billions of dollars trying to tackle the mounting issue of homelessness. The coronavirus pandemic has created an even greater sense of urgency to get people off the streets, but also out of crowded shelters where the pathogen could easily spread.
“This is a serious public health issue and I’m concerned that it is going to have a very devastating effect on the homeless,” Jeffrey Norris, the medical director at Father Joe’s Villages, a homeless outreach organization in San Diego, told Fox News.
Norris added: “Many have medical comorbidities — diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease — that put them at a higher risk. Many elderly folks experience homelessness. Whether they live on the streets or in dense shelters, they have a high prevalence in risk factors.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that money from the federal government would help pay for at least 15,000 hotel rooms during the pandemic. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Mayors Eric Garcetti and London Breed, respectively, have both been working to lease hotel rooms for homeless individuals in an effort to give them some literal breathing room and keep the virus at bay
The first hotel opened Friday in Los Angeles and a total of 1,340 beds at 15 sites across the county were expected to be ready by the end of that week with Garcetti saying at least 15,000 would be needed in total. San Francisco committed $35 million to lease 7,000 hotel rooms for the homeless for the next three months.
San Diego County has already secured more than 1,900 hotel rooms for the homeless as of late March and is currently working to secure more rooms throughout the county. Craig Gustafson, the communications director for the city of San Diego, told Fox News that the city believed the convention center was the best way to keep homeless individuals safe, as well as consolidate homeless services during the crisis.
Gustafson said the city is following all social distancing guidelines from the CDC and state officials by keeping beds 6 feet apart and making sure that the homeless keep their distance from one another. He added that trained nurses and other staff will be on head 24 hours a day to monitor for anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms.
“We’re taking all the precautions necessary and following all the recommendations. Our number one priority is keeping people safe,” he said. “It’s definitely a stop-gap measure in that we saw a problem in our shelters being so crowded and had to do something.”
Gustafson added: “We have hotel and motel rooms throughout the county, but county officials are focused on working on that.”
Megison balks at any use of “open congregate shelters” during the pandemic and argues that with most hotels and businesses closed to the public, there is more than enough space to shelter homeless people individually. He said his organization, which focuses primarily on the northern part of San Diego County, has moved residents in shelters to private housing units that it leased as the outbreak worsened.
“There are gazillions of empty hotel and motel rooms right now just sitting there,” he added. “Why put people in an open congregate shelter, I just don’t understand why the mayor and the county are doing this.”