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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 25th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 4 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 4

State and local leaders are working to protect the homeless from COVID-19

By ZAC EZZONE

As COVID-19 continues to change the daily lives of people throughout the world, local and state leaders are trying to protect the most vulnerable in our society, including those experiencing homelessness.

Unsheltered people living outside without consistent access to hygiene supplies as well as those in large shelters where it’s more difficult to keep distance from one another are particularly susceptible to the virus, according to a news release from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office on March 18.

The risk factors that make a person more prone to suffering a severe illness from the virus, such as age and underlying health conditions, further necessitate the need to prevent the virus from reaching homeless individuals.

“We will overwhelm ourselves if we don’t move with real urgency in this space,” Newsom said in a briefing on March 16 streamed online.

California, despite having only 12 percent of the country’s population, is home to a quarter of the nation’s homeless residents. Since taking office in January 2019, Newsom has focused on addressing the issue in various ways, including the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars to local jurisdictions to build supportive housing and increase shelter capacity. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, he again is dedicating substantial state funds toward assisting this population. 

On March 18, Newsom authorized $100 million to local jurisdictions for shelter support and emergency housing for homeless individuals. At the same time, he also announced the state would use $50 million to purchase trailers and lease rooms in hotels and motels to provide homeless individuals with a space to themselves during this pandemic.  

The next day, during one of his daily briefings streamed on his office’s Facebook page, Newsom said the state is purchasing 1,300 trailers and has identified a list of 950 hotels to potentially lease. This includes hotels in Santa Barbara County, although the county’s Homeless Assistance Program Manager Kimberlee Albers said she couldn’t say how many as of press time. 

As of March 23, there were 1,733 positive COVID-19 cases in the state and 18 in the county, but there were nearly 300 tests pending locally. As these numbers increase in the coming days and weeks, Albers said the county is working with community groups to try and prevent the virus from reaching people experiencing homelessness in the county, of which there are nearly 1,900.

She said the county is assessing local shelter capacity and trying to find ways to create more openings where needed. On March 21, the county Public Health Department announced the opening of an emergency shelter at Santa Maria High School. The county also deployed hand-washing stations that have been set up at the entrance of shelters and in areas of the county where homeless individuals tend to congregate. 

Good Samaritan Services Quality Assurance Manager Alexis Nshamamba said in an email that both of its emergency shelters in Lompoc and Santa Maria are near capacity and are not taking in new clients. To comply with the social distancing guidelines health officials have promoted during the pandemic, which include staying 6 feet away from other people, the shelters have rearranged beds and are asking clients to sleep in head-to-toe arrangements.

“Where the bed ends for one client and begins for the other, we are asking that the client sleep with their feet towards the next person’s head,” Nshamamba said in an email.

The shelters are also making arrangements for people who experience any COVID-19 symptoms, including a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Nshamamba said the shelters have isolation areas to remove people experiencing these symptoms from the rest of the population.

But the shelters are having trouble obtaining surgical masks that sick individuals could wear in these established isolation areas, Nshamamba said. Along with a need for masks, the shelters are requesting monetary donations. 

“We are forced to provide additional staffing to meet the need for being open 24 hours,” Nshamamba said. “We can also purchase food from local restaurants with donations, as many groups who usually prepare dinner are having to cancel.”

Emily Allen, the director of Homeless and Veterans Impact Initiatives for Northern Santa Barbara County United Way—which oversees Home for Good Santa Barbara County—said the agency is continuing its efforts to reach out to people experiencing homelessness, but right now the focus isn’t on helping people through the long process of obtaining permanent housing. Instead, agency workers are informing people about COVID-19 and distributing nonperishable food and hygiene supplies. 

Allen said that the agency is trying to secure solar-powered charging stations for most public locations that people experiencing homeless tend to frequent, such as libraries, where it’s easy to use the restroom or charge their phones. She also noted that the county created an online map of all open restrooms and hand-washing stations. 

Local agencies are working together to identify what other needs exist, while also waiting to hear from the state about how many beds are being made available through hotel rooms or trailers, Allen said. 

“A lot of people who are homeless are more vulnerable and have underlying health conditions that could make them more susceptible too,” Allen said. “I think as we all go into our homes to try to be safer … people are concerned about the people who don’t have homes.”

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at zezzone@santamariasun.com.








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