ESCONDIDO – As the public learns more about the nature of the coronavirus, one thing has become clear: The virus is most harmful to those who are most vulnerable.
This includes people 65 years and older, people with underlying health conditions and people who generally may be more exposed to it than others.
One group that has raised concerns at the state, county and city levels is the homeless population. In San Diego County, there are about 5,000 individuals without housing.
The city of Escondido has around 400 homeless individuals. About half of those are considered “sheltered homeless,” and the other roughly 240 individuals are unsheltered homeless individuals.
Because of efforts by the county and the region, the coronavirus is not adversely affecting the homeless the way the Hepatitis A outbreak did in 2017.
“When Hepatitis A happened, everything was all about ‘What are you doing for the homeless?’ because that’s where the disease was most afflicting. This is not the same,” Deputy City Manager William Wolfe said. “Nonetheless, common sense tells us that if you’re living outdoors, you’re probably living in less sanitary conditions than those who are living indoors, which means you are at a higher risk than the average person.”
To address these concerns, the county has provided 2,000 motel rooms for homeless individuals, 80 of which are in Escondido. These rooms, managed by Interfaith Community Services, provide shelter for those who are considered to be high-risk or for anyone exhibiting symptoms and needs to be quarantined.
The city has also provided hygiene kits to homeless individuals that include bottled water, hand sanitizer, wipes and toilet paper; park bathrooms are being cleaned and sanitized more frequently; and cloth face masks, donated by Palomar Health, have been given to every individual in the city without housing.
The Escondido Police Department’s Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS) unit has also been utilized during the crisis to locate individuals without housing and determine if they are either in a high-risk group or are symptomatic in order to shelter them in one of the county-provided motel rooms.
Interfaith Community Services, which is headquartered in Escondido, has partnered with the city in many of these efforts, as well as extending the hours of their Escondido shelter, Haven House, and providing free to-go meals for anyone in the community who needs them.
“There are people in the community who can’t ‘shelter-at-home.’ The sad reality is that there are many whose options are very limited,” Interfaith CEO Greg Anglea said. “It just highlights, that 365 days a year, even in the good times, there are thousands of people in our community who live on our streets.”
These widespread efforts to limit the spread of the virus within the homeless population seem to be working, according to both Wolfe and Anglea.
“There’s not a real high number of homeless individuals that have contracted the virus; however, it’s still important to do these things above and beyond, because they need our help above and beyond,” Wolfe said. “Somebody has to look out for them and make sure they have access to resources, and that’s where we come in.”