Samoshel, one of The People Concern’s shelters, is located in downtown Santa Monica. Photo by Brennon Dixon

With the number of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County on the climb, Santa Monica homeless shelters and outreach workers are working to serve a population especially vulnerable to the virus.

Homeless service providers are trying to meet the sanitary needs of Santa Monica’s homeless population — which skews older, struggles with health conditions and lacks access to hygiene facilities and supplies — as they develop plans to respond to potential COVID-19 cases in shelters and on the streets.

John Maceri, executive director of The People Concern, said the nonprofit’s three Santa Monica homeless shelters — Samoshel, Cloverfield Services Center and Turning Point — are being cleaned more frequently and staff are asking residents to be extra vigilant about maintaining their personal hygiene and sleeping areas. Volunteers are no longer be allowed to enter any facility.

“We’re following universal precautions — reminding staff and residents about the importance of covering their mouth when they cough, frequent handwashing and general cleanliness,” he said. “The faster we can contain this, the faster the epidemic will be over. We see our role as doing our part in a much bigger public health issue.”

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials approved supplies and protocols at The People Concern’s facilities last week, Maceri said.

“We’ve already increased the amount of disinfectant, hand sanitizers, soap and gloves we have on hand and eliminated self-service for any food or utensils,” he said. “We feel like we’re in good shape currently.”

Maceri said no residents or staff have shown symptoms of coronavirus. But residents are at risk of exposure from the general population because they can come and go freely, he said.

“People experiencing homelessness are already vulnerable because many have underlying health conditions, have a compromised immune system or are older,” he said.

A resident who displayed symptoms or was exposed to the virus would be isolated in an area within the shelter, he said.

“If we got to a situation where public health officials declared a mandatory quarantine, we’d follow those protocols and the Department of Public Health would take over and manage that process,” Maceri said.

Out on the street, homeless outreach workers are trying to adapt to the rapidly evolving pandemic.

Zachary Coil, who leads The People Concern’s C3 Team in Santa Monica, said outreach workers are maintaining a safe distance from their clients as they distribute standard hygiene kits. He said teams are concerned they will spread the virus to people experiencing homelessness because they are more likely to have traveled recently or come into contact with someone who has.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is also distributing more than 100 sanitation stations in encampments in Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin installed more than 35 handwashing stations in his district, which includes Venice. On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to move the state’s homeless population into state-owned trailers, hotels, motels and other indoor facilities to protect the vulnerable population from coronavirus, although he did not elaborate on the timeline of the plan.

But Coil said he is running low on hand sanitizer and cannot purchase more supplies because people have bought them out online and in local stores.

“I would love to give them all hand sanitizer, but we’re going to run out,” he said. “We’re awaiting instruction — it sounds like there’s going to be some distribution (from officials).”

Teams are also asking people experiencing homelessness if they feel feverish or have a dry cough, but it’s difficult to distinguish between coronavirus symptoms and typical illnesses, Coil said. As of Friday, outreach workers have not come across any individual with coronavirus symptoms.

“Our population has a lot of health factors anyway, so a cough is standard … especially with the rain this week,” he said.

Coil said the C3 Team is still figuring out how to respond to a potential coronavirus case should they encounter one. He said they would probably call an individual’s primary care provider if they have one or transport the individual to a hospital by ambulance to avoid contaminating their own vehicles.

As they give out basic supplies, outreach workers are also educating people experiencing homelessness about the spread of coronavirus. Coil said some individuals are following the pandemic and many don’t know about it at all.

“It’s been interesting trying to educate clients in what’s going on because they’re in a different mode than housed people are. This level of anxiety about the threat to our safety is a constant for that population, so it’s a different threat assessment … it’s just another day where they’re trying to get by,” he said. “If they have serious mental illness and are prone to paranoia, they think, of course this is what’s happening.”

Coil said he is worried about how Santa Monica’s homeless community will find food if grocery stores are depleted, restaurants are forced to close and volunteers who distribute food are ordered to stay at home.

“Our folks are typically not fed as much as they should be, but they have access to food,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows what will happen if there’s a broad “stay indoors” kind of call. I hope we’ll still be able to take care of the most vulnerable.”

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  1. Just imagine being in a place like San Francisco where they leave dirty syringes and feces all over the ground. An incubator for disease.

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