SAN FRANCISCO – Since the beginning of an international pandemic, experts have known one population is particularly vulnerable to contracting and spreading the coronavirus: the homeless.
Officials have vowed repeatedly to get them indoors, but testing shortages and bureaucratic wrangling are making it difficult. Relatively few of California's 150,000 homeless have been moved into individual quarters. It’s unclear how many even have the highly contagious virus.
“The whole shelter-in-place and the whole lack of shelter-in-place for homeless people was totally poorly thought out," said Needa Bee, who lives in a camper in Oakland with her teenage daughter.
The shutdown of public libraries and other facilities has made it difficult for homeless people to get clean water and food or use the bathroom.
It's a struggle playing out nationwide. In Portland, Oregon, some will be housed in the retro-hip Jupiter Hotel. In Seattle’s King County, authorities bought a motel and leased another to take infected people, with plans to move hundreds of homeless people from shelters into hotel rooms next week.
Photos of homeless people in Las Vegas — a city brimming with hotels — temporarily sleeping on rectangles painted on a makeshift parking lot sparked outrage.
The Trump administration announced $3 billion Thursday for homelessness pandemic efforts. California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged $150 million in homeless aid, including money for hotel rooms. He was expected to announce more steps Friday.
Mary Kate Bacalao, policy director at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, called the situation “absolutely terrifying."
“The urgency of this, and the urgency to get people inside, now more than ever cannot be overstated,” she said. “We’re moving way too slowly.”
Some San Francisco supervisors want more aggressive action to move people off the streets, while the mayor is focusing on people already in shelters or those showing symptoms.
“We have the hotel rooms, we have the money, we have the staffing. ... Why wouldn't we do this right now and save thousands of lives?" Supervisor Hillary Ronen said Thursday.
Mayor London Breed says it's not so easy in a population where many struggle with mental illness or addictions.
“I know that people are asking, ‘Well, why don’t we just open the doors and let everyone who’s homeless get access to a hotel room?'" Breed said. “We don’t have the ability to force anyone to stay anywhere.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 11,000 Californians and killed at least 249 as of Friday, according a tally by Johns Hopkins University. For most people, COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For others, it can cause more severe illness such as pneumonia, or death.
Among the California deaths was a crew member aboard the Grand Princess ship now docked in San Francisco Bay. Princess Cruises confirmed the death Friday. Spokesperson Negin Kamali did not answer questions about the worker's home country, what will happen to the crew still aboard the ship or where the ship is headed when it leaves its current location Saturday. At least two others tied to the ship have died after becoming infected during a voyage to Hawaii.
In San Jose, Phil Mastrocola, who runs a shelter at Grace Baptist Church, said homeless people want more information, such as how to tell if they are sick and where to go. “If you’re telling people not to go the hospital, where do they go?" he said.
San Diego County has been among the most proactive, sending outreach teams with nurses to distribute hygiene kits and focusing first on people who want help getting into a hotel. About 300 high-risk homeless people have moved into some of the 2,000 hotel rooms.
“Once we plow through the thousands of people who are accepting our help we’ll be forced to deal with that stickier situation,” San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said.
Needa Bee is the founder of a grassroots collective that administers to roughly 40 Oakland homeless encampments. They've been asking for donations of lemons and vinegar to sanitize hands since bleach and Lysol are so hard to get, distributing raw garlic for an immune boost, and collecting aloe plants to make hand sanitizer.
Compass Family Shelter raised private money to pay for a six-night hotel stay for a family who had to leave a shelter while waiting for their daughter's COVID-19 test results, which were negative. The family left Monday and can't be reached.
Caseworkers are also trying desperately to reach a woman who recently gave birth to a baby with medical issues. They didn't initially have a room for her.
“We lose these windows of opportunity when we don’t have the flexibility to say yes quickly," Bacalao said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.