Here’s How West Coast Cities Are Trying to Protect the Homeless from Coronavirus

Seattle just purchased a quarantine motel for people who can't do it themselves.
March 6, 2020, 5:22pm
Rows of tents at Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)​

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Cities on the West Coast are starting to take steps to protect their homeless populations from coronavirus, which could threaten people who can’t easily isolate themselves from the public.

In Washington, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak that’s already sickened 200 people, Seattle is adding shelter beds in the next few weeks to ensure fewer people are forced to sleep outdoors in unsanitary conditions. Officials in the Portland area are also asking shelters to space their beds further apart — at least six feet if people are coughing. And city council members in Los Angeles are advocating for more hand-washing stations at the city’s numerous homeless encampments so people can better meet the CDC’s recommendations for prevention.

Seattle is taking the most drastic measures of all the West Coast cities to protect its regional population of more than 11,000 homeless. Officials there announced Thursday that they’d soon try to move at least 100 homeless people indoors. But the city is also coping with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. so far, stemming from a cluster of cases in a suburban nursing home.

Seattle’s new shelter spaces will be online in two to three weeks, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said at a press conference Thursday, adding they'll be spread across two tiny-home villages and a former treatment facility. For now, the sites won’t be for quarantine or isolation purposes but rather just to get people out of harm’s way. As of Thursday afternoon, King County hadn’t seen any homeless patients among its 50-plus coronavirus cases.

If homeless people do become sick, the county also announced it’ll find a place for them to self-isolate — since they obviously can’t quarantine in a place of their own. King County just purchased a “quarantine” motel to isolate patients who can’t go to their own homes for a variety of reasons.

“We know we need to take additional measures to bring more of our unsheltered community inside,” Durkan said in a statement. “Our neighbors experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, and as a city, region, and country we must act with urgency to address the ongoing impacts of this public health crisis.”

California — the state with more than one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population — said it’s not yet concerned with the spread of coronavirus among homeless people, since their international travel may be limited, according to KQED in San Francisco. Plus, no outbreaks have been reported among homeless populations in the U.S. so far.

But homeless people are more likely to have chronic health conditions that can exacerbate or make them vulnerable to illnesses. That’s one reason why encampments have seen devastating outbreaks of hepatitis A, typhus, and shigella in the past. Then there’s the fact that encampments and shelters often pack homeless people in close quarters, and that homeless people don’t often have a place to quarantine themselves once they get sick.

All of those factors have led advocates to warn that cities should be doing everything they can to protect the nation’s poor from a virus that’s killed 14 people in the U.S. so far, and could uniquely threaten homeless people if proper precautions aren’t taken.

“What these emergencies highlight is our basic failure of our system to serve the most vulnerable among us,” Joshua Bamberger, associate director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, told KQED in San Francisco.

“We have to have the protocols in place, the materials in place, and the physical structures in place so that homeless people can be adequately housed during this epidemic, if it comes to pass,” he added.

Cover: Rows of tents at Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Seattle Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017,. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)