Local organizations continue support for homeless in pandemic

There’s yet to be testing done for the homeless population, but services remain available

By Kaitlin Washburn

VISALIA – While Tulare County has yet to have its first homeless person test positive for COVID-19, the thought is a constant worry for advocates, health care workers, government officials and the homeless community.

People who are experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Not only do they live in close quarters that are hard to keep clean and socially distant, but people who are homeless are more likely to have preexisting conditions that put them at a greater risk of contracting coronavirus and its worse forms.

COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, continues to rapidly spread at an alarming rate throughout California, the U.S. and the world. While the symptoms for many can be mild — a fever and a cough — the disease can be life threatening if not deadly for people who are older, have compromised immune or respiratory systems or a preexisting condition, such as diabetes or underlying heart issues.

Local organizations are continuing to try and provide services, such as health care, shelter and food, along with getting out information on COVID-19 to the county’s homeless communities. But there’s yet to be a concerted effort to go out and test homeless people for coronavirus in Tulare County, making the situation unclear.

HEALTH CARE

Dr. Omar Guzman is the director of Kaweah Delta Street Medicine, which provides health care directly to vulnerable populations who can’t access proper services. Street Medicine goes out to places like homeless encampments to provide preventative screenings, wound care, health education and referrals to social services and community health centers.

And since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Street Medicine has started visiting encampments to provide information on the disease and hygiene kits with alcohol-based hand wash, soap, Tylenol and a bucket for collecting water and washing their encampments.

The kits also include an informational card with an explainer of the virus and Tulare County’s 2-1-1 informational line and Kaweah Delta’s COVID-19 screening hotline.

Guzman said while Street Medicine has only made one trip out to a homeless camp, he hopes to continue providing these services. But like many local organizations, they’re low on staff. The program relies on help from medical residents and students, who have either been sent home or remain at hospitals.

Guzman said that while he was out at the encampment near the Ben Maddox trail head, most people were asking a lot of questions about the virus and how it’s transmitted. While no one at the camp was showing symptoms that day, Guzman worries about how rapidly COVID-19 would spread if an unsheltered person contracts it.

“If this virus hits, we are going to see a big surge from the homeless community,” Guzman said. “As long as the virus stays out of the environment it’s okay, but once it’s in it will spread rapidly. And there’s no way for people to stay socially distant and it’s very challenging to keep their encampments clean.”

Throughout April, California is expecting a surge of coronavirus cases, and Guzman said his organization is bracing to see what that means for the county’s homeless population.

“But the virus might already be there and we might not know, no one is going out to homeless encampments to do testing and ensure that information is getting out,” Guzman said. “We are working on talking with people to make sure they know what it is and what to look for.”

One of the issues Guzman and his team is grappling with is how hard it is for the homeless community to practice social distancing. And while their encampments tend to be outside of town, they could easily pick it up and bring it back to camp when they need to leave.

“There’s a lot of fear out there, they know they’re at an increased risk,” Guzman said. “Many asked, ‘If I haven’t bathed recently or haven’t been able to clean out my encampment, is that going to put me at a greater risk?’”

And the answer is yes. Quarantining is much different in a home with a heater compared to a tent out in the rain, Guzman said.

“There definitely needs to be an increase of the amount of education out there on the virus,” Guzman said. “When we went out, people had a lot of questions and many people had a genuine interest in what the virus is and many had educated questions on the virus.”

The homeless population already has more medical issues than the general population, Guzman said. While out at a homeless camp, for example, he spoke with a 30-year-old man who appeared healthy, but has a serious heart condition that would make him vulnerable to the worst of coronavirus.

SHELTER SERVICES

Al Oliver, the executive director of Visalia Rescue Mission (VRM), said the shelter is doing what it can to remain open and operate as normally as possible.

After Newsom’s initial shelter-in-place order was issued on March 19, the Rescue Mission told everyone who was at the shelter that they could stay through the duration of the lockdown as long as they didn’t leave the property to avoid bringing COVID-19 into the shelter.

Most people have remained at the shelter, which has a total of 150 beds. They also have 48 recovery beds as a part of a program that people can stay in for a year to get over drug addiction, and all of those people so far have stayed. VRM is not admitting new people, however, they might make exceptions depending on someone’s circumstances, such as a woman and her children.

To help with social distancing, the rescue mission converted its auditorium to a day room for people to spend time in and maintain a safe distance. Many of the people in the recovery program are also helping to manage the Mission’s day-to-day operations.

“We are trying to be as creative as we possibly can,” Oliver said. “Everyone I’ve talked to seems to be well-informed on what’s going on and what they need to do to remain healthy. I think it’s been remarkably orderly.”

Aside from shelter, the Rescue Mission is continuing to provide other services, such as meals, laundry and showers.

The rescue mission provides laundry services to onsite guests, but Oliver said the shelter is working on expanding that option to the greater homeless population. VRM has also expanded the hours people can use its community showers.

“We are trying to get people the services they need while also ensuring everyone maintains a safe distance, something the Rescue Mission has never dealt with before,” Oliver said. “This whole situation has led to a different thinking on my part. We are making as many changes as we can, but this is unlike anything we’ve seen since 1918.”

FOOD ACCESS

One organization focused on helping homeless and underserved people access food is the Bethlehem Center in Visalia. The Center plans to continue providing meals and food pantry boxes to those who need it throughout the pandemic, said Patrick Lozano, a board member for the Center.

The Bethlehem Center is open for food box pick-ups, either through a drive-thru or walk-up, from 12:45 p.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday. Normally, a family is limited to one box of food per month. But Lozano said folks can now pick up a box twice a month.

“Anyone who appears here and asks, we give it to them,” Lozano said. “If they are coming here, we assume they have a need.”

Lozano — whose company, Echelon Protection, does security for the Bethlehem Center — is out at the center every week and he’s gotten to know many of the people who visit. But since the coronavirus pandemic escalated, he’s seen a lot of new faces.

Lozano said about half of the people picking up food are first timers. Recipients are coming to the Center, which is in Visalia, from all over the county — as far as Porterville, Lindsay, Ivanhoe, Woodlake, Exeter and Dinuba.

“I have the unique pleasure of serving the client. I get to know people and they get to know me,” Lozano said. “They then feel more comfortable visiting, they don’t have to worry about stigma and we are not going to turn them away.”

Normally, the Center’s dining hall serves people breakfast and lunch daily, and those who come for a meal are usually experiencing homelessness. Now, Lozano said they still serve the meals, but people line up 6 feet apart at the Center and are given food through the fence from 8 a.m. to noon.

The Center is also handing out other supplies, such as hygiene packages, blankets and clothing. Lozano said they had to shut down their thrift store, a significant portion of their funds, and they are cautious about collecting any donations aside from money to ensure they don’t spread COVID-19.

Only staff at the Bethlehem Center are coming in to help with food handouts, they’ve had to turn away their volunteers out of caution, Lozano said.

“No one has asked for time off. Everyone is committed to coming in every day to help, they know how important this is for the community,” Lozano said.

As the coronavirus continues to rapidly spread and a return to normalcy remains unclear, Lozano said the Bethlehem Center is going to do all that it can to remain open and continue supplying people with food.

“Prior to COVID, we might give out 50 to 60 boxes a day, now that number is doubling and tripling,” Lozano said. “We are in it for the long haul, and anticipating the peak to be in late April, we are reaching out for more resources and financial donations.”

STATE FUNDS FOR HOMELESS

Gov. Gavin Newsom sent $100 million to cities, counties and continuums of care centers to aid California’s homeless population amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On March 23, Newsom signed Senate Bill 89, a $1 billion relief package to assist the state’s attempts to fight COVID-19.

California’s 13 largest cities will receive $42.9 million, while the state’s 58 counties will receive $27.3 million and California’s 44 continuums of care will receive $29.6 million. Tulare County is slated to receive $145,000 and the Tulare Kings Homeless Alliance, the area’s continuum of care, will receive $200,000.

The funding is intended for measures to help prevent and contain COVID-19 and can be used for medically indicated services and supplies, such as testing and hand-washing stations, according to a news release from the governor.

The funds can also be used to acquire new shelters, supplies and equipment for emergency shelter operations; increase shelter capacity and street outreach; and lease locations to place individuals who need to be isolated because of COVID-19 illness or exposure, according to the release.

Tulare County intends to use a portion of those funds to lease hotels and motels to quarantine a portion of the county’s homeless population, said Chaz Felix, the homeless initiatives program coordinator for Tulare County’s Homeless Task Force.

Once those rooms are available, they will be reserved for those who are at a greater risk of contracting the worst symptoms of COVID-19 or dying from the virus, Felix said.

Machael Smith, the director of Kings Tulare Homeless Alliance, said her organization has identified 181 people with disabilities and 28 seniors without disabilities who are experiencing homelessness and who could be housed in a hotel room.

Of the 181, Smith said the Homeless Alliance is working on sorting who has a disability that makes them a part of that vulnerable population, such as someone with a compromised immune system or respiratory problems. There are 53 total seniors, including those who have been identified to have a disability.

The Alliance has the names and contact information for those people. Smith said only people who are at a heightened risk of mortality from COVID-19 are being considered for a room.

“We will need to prioritize who we bring to a hotel room, because we won’t have enough space for those who need it,” Smith said.

The county and the alliance are still determining what the other portion of the state money will be spent on, whether it’s protection equipment, supplies or hand-washing stations. Smith said her organization is in touch with service providers in Tulare and Kings counties to see what they need most.

“The goal is not to house everyone, but to house those who need it the most,” Felix said. “We are doing our best to meet people’s needs and get information out.”

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