Hotels and Convention Centers Emptied by Coronavirus Are Now Sheltering the Homeless

But even advocates worry it might not be the safer option for avoiding contact with the virus.
March 24, 2020, 9:08pm
People walk past the San Diego Convention Center on Day One at Comic-Con International on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in San Diego,

There’s a small silver lining in hotels, arenas and convention centers recently closing over the coronavirus: Those places are now being converted into temporary shelters for homeless people.

From California to Kentucky, city and state officials are taking actions to temporarily shelter people in spaces that only a few weeks ago were bustling with events and crowds. But in some instances, that took weeks of prodding from the advocates who warned that cities were woefully unprepared for outbreaks among homeless encampments or in the nation’s limited and tightly packed congregate shelters. After all, homeless people have little ability to follow states’ numerous “stay-at-home” orders. They’re also more likely to be elderly or living with a pre-existing condition. And depending on how the new emergency shelters are set up — or if they’re too crowded — some people might actually be better off staying in their own encampments.

In San Diego, officials announced Monday that Golden Hall — home to an event space that once hosted the Rolling Stones but now more known for its naturalization ceremonies and existing family shelter — will soon be transformed into a massive emergency shelter for asymptomatic people. Additional shelter space will also be carved out of the city’s convention center, which is still booked for a large Comic-Con in July, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Unlike regular shelter beds — which can consist of bunk beds, or tightly-packed quarters — cots in the new emergency locations will be spaced six feet apart to comply with social distancing recommendations.

Meanwhile, San Diego’s at-risk homeless people, including families currently housed at Golden Hall, will be transferred to hotels. The same goes for Riverside County, California, where elderly, pregnant or immunocompromised homeless people can call up a new hotline and get a bed in participating hotels and motels so they’re safe.

And further north, Sullivan Arena in downtown Anchorage — described as Alaska's largest entertainment venue — is currently housing homeless men, while an adjacent indoor skating rink is housing homeless women, according to the Anchorage Daily News. (The coordinators of the temporary shelters, capable of hosting hundreds of homeless people, had to rush to add more cots because so many showed up.) On a smaller scale, meanwhile, a 40,000-square-foot convention center in northern Kentucky is housing at least 65 homeless people after a local emergency shelter closed because it was too small to adequately ensure social distancing.

Then there are the numerous high school gyms, libraries, juvenile jails, churches, and recreation centers that are suddenly becoming homes for the nation’s poorest residents. Even Harvard students, noting gaps in local resources for the homeless, petitioned this week for Cambridge to open up now-vacant dorm rooms to the poor.

But there are some people who may not be ready or able to go into new shelters or hotel rooms. For that reason and more, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this week that cities leave people sleeping outdoors alone if they’re already safe in their encampments and have adequate cleaning supplies. Moving them could spread illness even more, public health officials there warned.

“There’s a terrible tension here: You want people inside, out of their tents and encampments, so they can get critical services and potentially better access to health care,” Philip Mangano, president and CEO of the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness, told the Washington Post. “But with the coronavirus, is that the healthier option for them? People outside may be able to accomplish social distancing and self-quarantining rather than being cloistered together.”

Cover: People walk past the San Diego Convention Center on Day One at Comic-Con International on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in San Diego, Calif. (Photo by Christy Radecic/Invision/AP)