California can’t solve its coronavirus problem without housing the homeless – and the crisis is devastating the state – The Sun

THE CORONAVIRUS crisis has crashed straight into California’s existing homeless crisis, with the number of people without homes in the state likely to increase by a massive 45 percent due to the pandemic. 

The desperate situation has left charities battling to feed, bathe, and take care of thousands and thousands of unsheltered Americans.

California has had nearly 90,000 confirmed cases of the virus, with more than 3,500 deaths – and is one of 24 states that experts warn is still suffering an uncontrollable spread.

The state is also home to a quarter of the nation's homeless population and despite an initiative to house some of its 150,000 unsheltered Americans during the pandemic, activists say they cannot cope.

In Los Angeles, where the city and county has nearly 60,000 homeless, missions have been forced to shut because they cannot meet social distancing guidelines. 

"The homeless have been left hungry," says Shirley Raines, who runs Beauty 2 The Streetz, a non-profit giving wigs, haircuts, and makeovers – as well as food and clothes – to the homeless.

Although she has had to suspend the makeovers, Raines is still out on the street trying to help.

"When the coronavirus hit, all these shelters shut," she explains. "We didn't come out for the first couple of weeks but then I realized there would be no-one else out here helping."

Raines' charity works in Skid Row, where an estimated 5,000 of LA's homeless live.

On Saturday morning at 8am, Raines and her crew gather in a McDonald's to bag up food packages. Before the pandemic, they'd do this in Skid Row, but now they can’t because they would be "swarmed" by hundreds desperate to eat.

Donations come from people who have purchased items from Raines' "wish list", which she posts on social media.

At one point, a masked man pulls up in his car and runs out, carrying a bag of clothes.

"Here you go, I'm sorry it's not more," he says as he gives the bag to a volunteer before ducking back into his vehicle.

Usually Raines will feed around 400 individuals a day, and up to 800 during the summer months. At first, they were too scared to come out, but now, her numbers are back to normal.

At 9am, a line of cars packed with lunches, masks, hand sanitizer, and flip flops runs from the McDonald's parking lot towards Skid Row.

The convoy is escorted by the Fighters For The World motorcycle club, who block traffic and provide essential security. 

There is a Chicken and Waffles food truck as a special treat and the smell of bubbling batter quickly draws a crowd of at least 100, who line up on the sidewalk.

The majority were wearing masks. Raines had words with those who did not. 

"Why don't you have your mask on?" Raines asks a woman with her mask around her neck. "Is it a necklace? No, get that mask on."

The woman pulled her mask up around her face.

"There you go," Raines said. "Looking fine."

"Thank you ma'am," the woman replies.

Due to COVID, there are now more homeless women on the street.

The Downtown LA Women's Shelter shut when the pandemic hit due to social distancing rules. 

"They ended up on the street," says Raines. "Women who are not used to being out here now have nowhere else to go."

Sandra, a woman wearing a balaclava, describes the situation as "very scary".

"It’s frightening because we know it is killing a lot of people but we’ve not really been given much information."

The 61-year-old was tested, and her results were negative, but she is still concerned.

"I feel OK, but sometimes I feel scared because I never know who might have it around here. My friend died last week.

"They’ve closed the women’s shelter, but that means there are women on the streets who usually have a safe place to be. And they’re not used to Skid Row and they’re scared."

There are stories of women who have been kicked out of the shelters  and have been sexually assaulted on Skid Row, although The Sun could not confirm these reports.

"I wish I could say I was disappointed in the city," Raines says, "but I didn’t expect any different.

"And in three months time, we'll see a surge of people who couldn't pay rent because they've lost their jobs. There are going to be many more people out on the streets because of the coronavirus."

California's homeless population increased 16 percent in 2019, bringing the number to 151,000. The state has the highest number of homeless by far.

In March, Gov Gavin Newsom signed an $150 million emergency grant to help the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Project Roomkey", a statewide initiative to move the homeless into hotels to protect them from COVID-19, has leased 15,000 rooms.

To qualify, individuals had to be over 65 or suffer from pre-existing health conditions.

As of May 19, 7,919 hotel rooms had guests and another 7,700 were vacant, according to figures from Newsom's office.

The number of homeless individuals in those rooms could be even lower, however, as anyone who needed to quarantine, regardless of whether they had a home, was eligible.

In LA county, where the goal was to move about 15,000 people into rooms under the program, just over 2,700 rooms have been leased, with 1,582 currently occupied.

The program has not been without opposition; Laguna Hills in Orange County fought against efforts to help the homeless, even going so far as to file a lawsuit – which was later dropped.

In Rosemead and Monterey Park, both in LA County, residents have taken to the streets to protest against housing the homeless in hotels.

"We don't want any COVID in our neighborhood," said one protester. Another shouted through a megaphone: "No homeless shelter in our neighborhood.”

“In just over a month, [we] have stood up 28 hotels to shelter those who are most at risk if COVID is contracted,” Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Executive Director Heidi Marston said.

“The number one reason there are unoccupied rooms at Project Roomkey sites is that we operate a phased move-in process for each hotel.

"Usually, it takes three to five days to fill a hotel with clients, but if the hotel is larger, then it will take more time to fill it to capacity."

No individuals with COVID are housed in the program's hotels.

San Francisco's attempt at tackling the situation was to open up a "Safe Sleeping Village", which was met with a lukewarm reception as it only allows for 50 tents, and consists of white boxes marked out in a a concrete space.

Mel Tillekeratne, homeless activist and co-founder of Shower of Hope, the country’s largest program of mobile shower units, has had a similar experience to Raines.

At 10am in El Monte on Thursday May 7, a city just east of LA in the San Gabriel Valley, it was already boiling hot – even by SoCal standards.

Tillekeratne shaded his eyes from the glare of the morning sun as he stood overseeing his operation at Whittier Narrows Park.

"It's a logistical nightmare," he said. "As soon as the pandemic hit, Dr Fauci told everyone they had to wash their hands frequently to stay safe. But that’s based on the assumption that everybody gets to wash their hands daily.

"But the Starbucks all shut, the gas stations stopped letting people use their restrooms, the parks and all their facilities shut, where were the homeless supposed to clean themselves?"

Although Tillekeratne described the low reported cases of coronavirus amongst the homeless as "sheer luck" – thanks to a spread-out city, a lack of public transportation, and homeless communities who prefer to isolate – he said the battle has not yet arrived.

"The fight will start in a few months' time," he warned.

"When people's debts start catching up with them, when the eviction moratoriums run out."

"That's when the shit hits the fan."

Marston acknowledged the true economic impact of COVID was uncertain.

"Economic conditions are a significant driver of homelessness," she said. "And the future impacts are unknown. We are always looking at innovative ways to serve our clients better. We will continue to do so in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis."

Shower of Hope provides 1,200 to 1,400 showers a week at 22 locations across LA County.

As a precaution, the team put caution tape around the trailers to protect staff and "bleach the hell" out of the shower cubicles after each use.

They have also started offering food.

"People will turn up and the first thing they'll ask is: have you got any food? They aren't getting food from churches anymore – those places are staffed by a lot of elderly volunteers, who are in the vulnerable population, and so have had to shut down."

"To be honest though," he added, "the homeless just see COVID as another thing to deal with. They have so much on their plate already, it's just another thing to add to the pile."

As for Newsom's Project Roomkey, Tillekeratne said it's not as simple as putting a "regular Joe" into a hotel room.

"Some people are unwilling to go, they have mental health issues, and a symptom is paranoia. They're suspicious and untrusting."

Distancing is hard, too.

"For most of us we see our friends once, twice a week. For them, friends are family. They see them every single day, 16 hours a day," Tillekeratne said.

"You put them into hotels and you remove them from social connections…they are going to suffer a lot.

"They’re not going to stay in an isolated hotel room."

Brian Smith was one of the individuals who was offered a room in a hotel.

But, due to a miscommunication, he thought he could only be outside for two hours a day [the actual curfew hours are 7pm to 7am], and so he turned the room down.

"I didn't know who was going to feed my cats," said the 58-year-old, whose tent is pitched up in the riverbed under Valley Boulevard Bridge, east of LA.

"Now I find out that you can go out and they just want you in by 7pm, but I’m like, ‘why didn’t you say that the first time?’

"Because I could come out, take care of my cats, and go back inside and be out of the heat. I thought we could only go out for two hours and they were going to take me 13 miles away from my tent.

"I also have marijuana issues, and even though it’s legal I wouldn’t be allowed to smoke it."

The father-of-two has been homeless since 2004 and said he would "love" to be in a hotel room and so has re-signed up to the scheme.

On the whole, he said, his life hasn't changed all that much.

"There's no church, and I do go to church.

"And I haven’t seen my psychiatrist and social workers for about a month though, and I do suffer from depression."

Smith does acknowledge that things might get harder in the next couple of months, if more are made homeless.

"Our services and facilities are going to be strained, they’ll be impacted really hard when more people lose their homes and come out onto the streets."

Monique was made homeless in December when she lost her job. The 29-year-old is now struggling to find work and sleeps in her car on the border of South El Monte and Whittier.

"It’s hard charging my phone, I can’t get into buildings to charge it," she explained. "I have two years of sales and customer service experience but now, it’s going to be even harder for me to find a job.

"I used to go to park and I could clean up a lot better than just taking a shower once a week. It feels like COVID is just another hurdle in the way for me getting back on my feet.

"A lot of homeless live a double life. They’re out there trying to get jobs. They’re trying to shower to look clean and presentable and they don’t tell anybody they’re sleeping in their car."

Her mom has been homeless for three years, and lives in an encampment in Riverside.

"I am scared of even trying to get a job again," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "Because if I can’t shower every day, how can I be consistent? How can I be clean when I go into work?"

Monique usually cleans, but has lost the little work she had due to the pandemic.

She is on the waiting list for a hotel room, but now is worried about leaving her daughter behind.

"I want her to stay in a hotel too. Now there are less shelters open, more people losing their homes and more people coming into our homeless communities, I am worried about her safety.

"More homeless people here means that there are more strangers out on the streets that we don’t know.

"At least she has her dogs to protect her."

Monique and her mom April are also hoping to get onto the Project Roomkey program.

Outside Los Angeles, the homeless crisis is equally dire. In Bakersfield, a city of 380,000 people north of LA, the problem is so bad that Kern County officials suggested putting homeless people in jail for misdemeanor drug offenses and trespassing.

Bakersfield has been granted $537,127 by Newsom, but some shelters are struggling.

"You have to house the homeless to solve the COVID pandemic," Carlos Baldivinos, CEO of The Mission, explained. "Homeless providers are in a tough spot because you want to help as many people as you can, but you don't know who is coming through your door.

"The minute the coronavirus happened, volunteers stopped coming here, overnight. People don't know what they're dealing with."

The Mission serves around 500 meals a day and has up to 300 people staying in their sleeping facilities every night.

The organization has had to spend vital funds on establishing six hand washing stations and Baldivinos says social distancing has been difficult.

"It's been really hard setting that up logistically," he said. "Add the meal component, and you can't have a certain amount of people in a room."

And for the volunteers who have been left shouldering the responsibility to care and feed California's unsheltered population, it's an insurmountable problem, with no end in sight.

"What's the economy going to look like next year?,” asked Tillekeratne. “If restaurants are cutting down customers by a third, that'll be servers cut by a third. And those sorts of people are already living paycheck to paycheck.

"Let's low ball it," he estimated. "Let's say 2,000 will be homeless in the next three months [he works this out using the statistic that 600,000 Los Angelenos spend 90 percent of their income on rent]. How many in six months? This next year?"

"It’s a tough question," Tillekeratne said. "How can you respond to COVID-19 without housing the homeless?

"The answer is pretty simple, though… you can’t."


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