While California residents have been ordered to stay at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), that's simply not an option for the thousands of people throughout the state who are living without homes in the first place.
The homeless are among the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19, and as their need for shelter, sanitation, and services becomes even more critical, service providers throughout San Luis Obispo County are working to adapt to historically challenging circumstances.
- Photo Courtesy Of Wendy Lewis
- REINFORCEMENTS San Luis Obispo County recently acquired four trailers to help quarantine individuals at homeless shelters who have symptoms of COVID-19. Two are at the El Camino Homeless Organization in Atascadero.
"We are trying to respond. We don't have all the answers, and we don't have all the supplies," said Janna Nichols, executive director of the Five Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC), which serves South County. "We're trying as a community to rise to this challenge as best we can."
Shelters and warming centers—from the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) in Atascadero, to 40 Prado in SLO, to the LifePoint Church warming center in Grover Beach—are slammed and operating under new protocols that include mandatory temperature checks, an increased focus on hygiene and sanitation, and social distancing.
"We're doing everything we can," said Grace McIntosh, deputy director of the Community Action Partnership of SLO County (CAPSLO), which operates the 40 Prado shelter in SLO. "We are trying to do our best in terms of keeping things sanitary and clean."
But they're lacking the necessary supplies to effectively do so. There's a widespread shortage of protective gear, like N-95 masks and gloves, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, thermometer covers, food, sleeping bags, volunteers, and money. Local homeless nonprofits will need the community's support to successfully navigate this pandemic, leaders said.
"If you're hoarding at home, even if you're not hoarding and you can spare it, you've got to share," Nichols said. "Virtually every service provider for the homeless is in the same situation. We're going to be woefully short."
While there had not been a case of COVID-19 identified in the SLO County homeless population as of press time, state and county leaders are preparing for that event. On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $150 million in emergency state funds to assist counties with protecting the homeless from COVID-19.
SLO County received $500,000 of that aid on March 20, and it's since entered into contracts to receive four trailers and gain access to four local motels. Those shelter resources will be used to help quarantine homeless individuals who are exhibiting symptoms and need to be tested for the virus.
Combined, the four motels deliver 155 beds and are located in each region of the county—north, south, central, and coast. The homeless nonprofits, like 5CHC, will be responsible for referring clients to the motels, with the goal of separating those with COVID-19 symptoms from those without symptoms, according to county officials.
"We're still figuring this all out," Nichols, of 5CHC, explained. "We've been asked [by the county] if we have volunteers who are available to check on people [in the motels] remotely via telephone. We've been asked if we could deliver meals. We've been asked if we could provide hygiene products. ... We've said yes to all of these."
The four trailers secured by the county are split between ECHO and 40 Prado. Set up outside the two nonprofits' facilities, the trailers will allow them to isolate individuals who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and need further medical evaluation.
40 Prado is benefitting from its partnership with the Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, whose medical staff is already on-site and able to conduct evaluations and collect samples for COVID-19 testing, according to CAPSLO's McIntosh. Two individuals at 40 Prado had been tested for COVID-19 as of March 23 and both results came back negative.
"It is probably the single most important thing right now," McIntosh said of CAPSLO's partnership with Community Health Centers.
In addition to setting up a system that can handle symptomatic homeless individuals, service providers are also scrambling to identify shelter options for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
In South County, 5CHC and SLO County Parks have collaborated to open 10 campground sites to serve as a safe parking and sleeping area for "our most vulnerable folks," Nichols said.
"We're obviously very concerned about those who have underlying medical conditions," she said.
Another important component of the campgrounds is their access to restrooms, Nichols said, which has been a major problem for the homeless made much worse by the COVID-19 public facility closures.
In Atascadero, ECHO CEO Wendy Lewis said that the nonprofit has expanded its public shower program in the wake of COVID-19. It's now open every weekday, Monday through Friday, from 3 to 5 p.m.
ECHO has gone to great lengths to address sanitation and social distancing in its programs, Lewis said, setting up cone markers at 6 feet apart and mandating health checks and extra handwashing. Its public meal program is now "to-go" (except for residential clients).
"So far, nobody has had any symptoms," Lewis said on March 23, "so that's been a silver lining."
Lewis noted that she is concerned about the homeless community in Paso Robles, since the northernmost city lacks a shelter or even a warming center to open during rainy and cold weather.
ECHO, which recently expanded some services to Paso Robles, is exploring options to increase shelter there during the COVID-19 crisis.
"We're working very closely with the city and the county and the state to try to find places for people to go in that area as well," Lewis said. "Those folks who are unhoused really are lacking vital life-saving resources."
Paso Cares, a Paso-based nonprofit that serves free dinners to the homeless across from the fairgrounds, will continue its meal program, but in a to-go fashion.
"They can't hang out there," Paso Cares' Treasurer Jack Philips said. "It's too bad because one of the big socialization things is for them to hang out together. They're very alone."
All nonprofits serving the homeless during this pandemic need the community's support—through donations, supplies, and/or volunteers. To find the most up-to-date information about what's needed most, visit 5chc.org, echoshelter.org, and capslo.org/40prado.
"We are in this together," Nichols said. Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.