Preventing COVID from setting up camp in Tulare County

Health officials, hospital and Homeless Alliance work together to prevent outbreaks in homeless encampments

TULARE COUNTY – Months before COVID-19 was a household name, homelessness was the top concern of health and government officials in Tulare County. Since mid-March, the coronavirus has dominated the county and the nation’s attention while those experiencing homeless continue to be the most at-risk population for most illnesses but also pose the greatest risk to public health.

This is why area agencies and health care providers have banded together to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 from occurring within the homeless populations which could setback public health and economic progress made in the last month. The Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, Tulare/Kings Homeless Alliance, and Kaweah Delta’s Street Medicine Program have collaborated to organize and provide various outreach events at homeless encampments throughout the county.

Working together, area agencies can provide onsite health screenings and COVID-19 testing, as well as supply face coverings, hygiene kits, and essential food and water.

“We are doing free COVID-19 screening tests for the homeless population to decrease that barrier to access of care,” said Dr. Omar Guzman, who directs Kaweah Delta’s Street Medicine Program. “Our street medicine team allows us to proactively seek patients in the community who might need to see a doctor, but just haven’t had access. If we find out someone is positive for the coronavirus in a place where it is really hard to self-isolate, hard to wash their hands, and they don’t have access to masks, we can get them help.”

Kaweah Delta’s Street Medicine Program provides the direct delivery of health care within a homeless encampment, including collection of COVID-19 specimens that are then sent to the Kaweah Delta laboratory for processing. This committed group of physicians, nurses, and community volunteers travel the roads of Tulare County offering the most vulnerable populations – undocumented workers, uninsured, homeless, etc., preventive health screenings, wound care, health education, and referrals to social services and community health centers.

In addition to on-site COVID testing and health screenings, organizers provide information and referrals to Project Roomkey in Tulare County, resources available to get free health care, federal stimulus programs, and channels to permanent housing, as well as information for local drug and substance abuse prevention programs. Project Roomkey utilizes state funding to secure hotel and motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. The program provides a way for people who do not have a home to stay isolated to prevent any potential spread of COVID-19. 

Currently, the County is able to house 19% of the homeless population, if needed, through Project Roomkey.

“It is imperative that we provide essential health care to the homeless and proactively prevent any potential outbreaks. The majority of our homeless population is extremely vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, as most also have other, underlying medical conditions,” shared Tulare County Supervisor Amy Shuklian, who chairs the Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness.

Much of funding for Project Roomkey comes from the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance. Tulare County received $145,000 and the alliance, the area’s continuum of care, received $200,000 as part of a $1 billion relief package signed by the Governor in March. The project is not only key for preventing the spread of the virus, but also to address other health needs the county’s most vulnerable residents and possibly transition them into more permanent housing. 

Tulare County has the highest percentage of homeless people with highest need in the entire country. Nearly one-third of the homeless in the Tulare-Kings Continuum of Care (CofC), statistical areas where homeless people are served, are considered chronically homeless, meaning they have been without shelter for a year or at least four separate times in the past three years. To make matters worse, 95.8% of those who are chronically homeless in the area have no place to go for shelter. That’s the highest percentage in the nation, more than Los Angeles, Fresno, Oakland and Long Beach
According to a report presented to Congress in December, Tulare and Kings Counties ranked fourth on the list of CoCs with the highest percentage of homeless people who are unsheltered. More than three-quarters of the homeless here (823 people) live on the streets without shelter from weather. That only trails the Vallejo and Pasadena areas in California and the Eugene area in Oregon for urban areas not among the 50 largest cities in the nation. 

Tulare and Kings counties also ranked third among urban areas outside the 50 largest cities with the highest number of chronically homeless. Locally, 286 people were identified as chronically homeless, trailing only Eugene, Ore. And Vallejo, Calif. in the largely urban category. 

This ongoing collaboration will continue providing outreach events to homeless populations throughout Tulare County in an effort to prevent and mitigate any potential COVID-19 outbreaks at homeless encampments within local cities and locations throughout the county. Anyone who is interested in volunteering with Kaweah Delta’s Street Medicine Program can sign up at www.kaweahdelta.org/street.

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