‘We’re Scared Shitless’: Thousands of Homeless People in Silicon Valley Don’t Know How to Fight Off the Coronavirus

They're living in encampments with baby wipes and maybe some disinfectant.
March 11, 2020, 4:22pm
Cowboy Stryker, 55, poses for a portrait in his encampment by a highway in Santa Clara County, California. He's been homeless for 35 years.​ (Emma Ockerman/VICE News)

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SANTA CLARA COUNTY — In the center of California’s coronavirus-stricken Silicon Valley, Valerie Kirkland isn’t sure she can keep the outbreak from infiltrating her rain-soaked tent, plopped in the dirt in downtown San Jose.

She has a surgical mask and a tub of baby wipes to keep her hands and face clean, but not much else. She’s been telling other homeless people around her to cover their mouths when they cough. She’s stopped sharing cigarettes with friends, too.

“It’s scary,” said the 65-year-old, who’s been homeless for 10 years. “Anybody who gets sick — stay away.”

In the past several days, Santa Clara County has become home to more than a quarter of all of California’s 157 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And the area’s homeless population, one of the largest in the country, is remarkably at risk. In just the past decade, rents around San Jose have risen by nearly 75%, or by an average of more than $1,000, forcing more people onto the streets and putting them at greater risk for disease. The vast majority of the county’s 9,700 homeless people currently live outdoors in encampments or vehicles, according to government data.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has come to a grinding halt during the outbreak. The region’s major tech behemoths — Facebook, Apple, Google — have urged employees to work from home, and Santa Clara County has entirely banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

Although no coronavirus cases have been reported in any of the county’s many homeless encampments, 45 people in the area were diagnosed with the coronavirus and one had died, as of Wednesday morning. Officials have granted more preventative measures — like sanitation supplies at encampments and a moratorium on evictions — to protect the homeless and prevent the disease from spreading to others, but advocates worry it might be too little, too late.

“Frankly, we’ve been worried even without this. And now it’s here,” said Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and director of the university’s Center for Vulnerable Populations. “They’ll make Herculean efforts to keep people safe, but we know this could be bad, and our options are quite limited.”

To start, homeless people are often elderly or disabled, and typically dealing with pre-existing conditions. They’re also forced to wander around in public spaces most of the day before settling down to rest in crowded and sometimes unsanitary areas. In the past few years, homeless encampments across the West Coast have seen sometimes deadly outbreaks of hepatitis A, typhus, and shigellosis.

Now, facing a new and unwieldy outbreak, officials in cities with large homeless populations are purchasing “quarantine motels” for people who can’t isolate themselves, spending millions of dollars to clean shelters and keep them open, and suspending sweeps that scatter tents.

In Santa Clara County, one homeless man in his 30s, who asked to remain anonymous, told VICE News that he’d just been hired as part of a hazmat team to disinfect a local tech company exposed to coronavirus over the weekend. He was lucky, he said, to have paid sick leave, so he wasn’t worried about the virus impacting his life.

As for Kirkland — who falls into the county’s “higher risk” category for the coronavirus since she has a chronic respiratory illness — staying home means crawling into a tent on a street named for Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. (He’s shared his concerns of contracting the coronavirus on Twitter.) With her retirement income of only $600 a month, Kirkland can’t afford a roof over her head in one of the country’s wealthiest counties. Since she doesn’t have access to a TV or a radio, she’s been trying regularly to get information from her sister when her phone is charged enough for the call.

Just two weeks ago, she was hospitalized for several days with pneumonia, but she wasn’t tested for the coronavirus. She said she was coughing up “green and yellow” and had a high fever that left her immobile.

“It was terrible. I’ve never been that sick,” she said. “I was practically dying, I feel good now, considering.”

‘We’re scared shitless’

The lack of public health preparedness among homeless encampments, coupled with a dearth of access to accurate information, has left advocates and homeless people across the country frustrated and confused.

The Reddit forums, Facebook groups, and Discord servers used by homeless people to communicate among themselves and with advocates are brimming with urgent questions and anxiety. If too many people in one camp get sick, how will homeless people care for one another? Is it safer to be in a shelter, or on the streets?

In Santa Clara County — where many homeless people are elderly or disabled, according to advocates — the virus is particularly concerning. Even before the virus hit, officials in the county were considering several affordable housing options, including a multimillion-dollar proposal for low-income and supportive housing. Now those units seem even more pressing.

“We just had our highest death rate ever here — 161 — and more than 50% of the people who died were over 50,” Shaunn Cartwright, an advocate for unhoused people in Santa Clara County, said of the number of homeless people who died last year locally. “We’ve been saying for a long time, ‘Look around: They have walkers, they have wheelchairs.’”

On Tuesday, she and others crowded into the chambers of the county’s board of supervisors to plead for advice and action in helping the homeless navigate the coronavirus, which has already killed 25 nationwide. In addition to temperature readings, they want hand-washing stations and more places for homeless people to stay indoors. (At that meeting, the audience was told to sit far apart. One health official spoke to county legislators by speakerphone, since he was home sick.)

“Where are the portable showers? Where is the ability to wash clothes? People wander our city, town, all day long,” Scott Largent, a 42-year-old who recently became homeless, asked at the meeting.

City and county officials were also concerned about how this would impact the myriad encampments scattered across the region.

“We don’t want to create colonies of sick people, either, out in the elements,” said David Cortese, a county supervisor. “But we are, as we all know, about 8,000 beds short of sheltering people.”

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced that he’d keep police from removing people from their encampments while health workers try to avoid an outbreak. He also proposed a moratorium on evictions that he hoped would keep the homeless population from growing even more. A spokesperson for the county’s office of emergency services also told VICE News the county planned to provide more information to homeless people about the virus, along with hand sanitizer, soap, tissues, and water.

That information is desperately needed within the local encampments. One homeless woman, Glenda Morgan, told VICE News she’d keep herself in her tent if she became ill, but she didn’t know the symptoms of COVID-19. So far, she wasn’t too worried.

“We keep it as clean as we can,” said the 58-year-old, who lives beneath a large tree off a local bike path with eight or nine people and no running water. Someone had been by to pass out sanitizer and masks, and she had a bottle of disinfectant in her encampment’s makeshift kitchen.

“I’d quarantine right here, I guess,” she said. “God don’t put no more on me than I can handle.”

County officials said homeless people don’t have to self-quarantine in camps or shelters. If they test positive for the illness, they’ll be paired with supportive housing, hospital beds, or another suitable place to stay if need be. Several homeless people VICE News spoke to weren’t aware of that.

In the county’s shelters, where homeless people have greater access to sanitation services in exchange for more crowded conditions, concerns over coronavirus are just as rampant. Homeless people staying in one of Santa Clara County’s larger and more sought-out facilities, often called the “Sunnyvale shelter,” said the 175-bed facility had made face masks and plenty of hand sanitizer available to its temporary residents. But they still worried that they were sleeping in a densely packed environment with little information about such a fast-moving virus.

To keep people from coughing near one another, residents were asked to sleep head-to-toe, according to three homeless people at the shelter who spoke with VICE News. The shelter’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re scared shitless,” said one shelter resident, Paul, who asked not to use his full name. “I want to get out of there. I have my issues of being stuck in a warehouse with 100 people.”

Cover: Cowboy Stryker, 55, poses for a portrait in his encampment by a highway in Santa Clara County, California. He's been homeless for 35 years. (Emma Ockerman/VICE News)