'Palpable Fear' Within Homeless Communities as Coronavirus Crisis Forces Shelters to Limit Capacity

Nick Guerette, a volunteer with the Berkeley Free Clinic, sets up a DIY hand washing station at a camp community in Berkeley on March 12, 2020. The clinic is setting up stations around the city because they say city officials haven't installed enough of them to provide sanitation for people living in encampments.  (Photo courtesy Berkeley Free Clinic)

Melissa Moore spends her days on her bicycle, riding to the tent communities under the BART tracks in San Leandro to bring people food and supplies.

Shelters in Alameda County have stopped accepting new clients — as they have in San Francisco and elsewhere around the Bay Area — so they can begin to implement the social distancing guidelines that have been mandated by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But that makes it hard for those who have nowhere else to go, Moore said. She knows. She’s homeless, too.

“They have no running water to keep themselves sanitized,” she said. “Resources have dried up. Churches are closed. People are hungry, starving.”

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Moore, 52, became an activist when a state transportation agency ordered the camp where she lived to close in October. Moore netted new connections with nonprofits while protesting the camp’s closure and working with Alameda County officials to open an alternative shelter. It’s a network she now uses to gather the supplies she brings to camp communities in Hayward and San Leandro. She’s been visiting them daily since the coronavirus outbreak, she said.

“It’s frustrating,” Moore said. “There’s no social distancing in the camps. They don’t know what to do.”

Across the Bay Area, advocates for people experiencing homelessness have told KQED it’s been incredibly difficult to implement the CDC’s recommended guidelines for limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus. Supplies are scarce, they say, and there’s not always a clear answer to questions of how to shelter someone if they are extremely high risk, or where to take someone who is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms but may not yet be considered a severe case.

Karen Hanrahan, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit GLIDE Foundation, said many clients don’t have enough information about the virus, despite the outreach city officials say is happening.

“There is a palpable fear among the homeless community we serve because they have no information, and they’re scared they are going to die,” Hanrahan said. “They have more underlying health risks and conditions, and they feel like nobody is going to take care of them.”

Phil Mastrocola, the program director for the Grace Baptist Church’s shelter in San Jose, said his only recourse when someone shows up sick is to send them to urgent care. That’s what happened the other day when a guest came in with a cough and chills.

“I sent him to urgent care,” Mastrocola said. “They sent him back with a letter that was very clear saying he has no signs or conditions of fever or upper respiratory problems, so that gave me some comfort.”

So, he let the man stay the night.

Several counties, including in Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara, have begun offering hotel rooms, RVs or other shelters to people experiencing homelessness. In Alameda County, health officials have started moving people who are experiencing symptoms, along with some people considered high risk, into two hotels to isolate.

In Santa Clara County, public health staff is hoping to open a temporary shelter by the end of the week at its fairgrounds to maintain social distancing at the nearly two dozen shelters in the county. In San Francisco, the city is quarantining people in hotel rooms and plans to open a new temporary shelter next week at Moscone Center West.

But advocates for people who are homeless say it’s not happening soon enough. Only a relatively small portion of people living in shelters or camps can take advantage of these programs. And in the meantime, people living in shelters and encampments are risking exposure to the virus.

The Berkeley Free Clinic has installed DIY hand washing stations and hand sanitizer at camp communities in Berkeley. (Photo courtesy Jon Marley/Berkeley Free Clinic)

Jace Perry, a volunteer with the Berkeley Free Clinic, which does outreach to people experiencing homelessness, said all they can do is tell people to go to urgent care or the hospital.

“They go to the ER and are told their symptoms are not bad enough and are sent home,” Perry said. “And they’re really, really scared.”

In some cases, volunteers doing outreach to homeless people have been able to work with other nonprofits or church groups to get temporary housing. Joe Pendleton is a three-tour veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives in a van in Berkeley and does outreach to the tent communities in his city.

One man he visits is receiving chemotherapy treatment and has emphysema, Pendleton said. He worked with a church group to get the man a hotel room for two weeks.

“No immune system with a compromised airway,” Pendleton said. “This gentleman absolutely had to get into a hotel room.”

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish symptoms of underlying health conditions from ones related to COVID-19, said a psychiatric nurse who works for a clinic in San Francisco. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she’s not authorized to speak to the press. She said people come into her community health clinic all the time, coughing.

Without enough personal protective equipment, she said she’s terrified of passing the virus on to her family.

“I come home, I strip in the garage and put everything in the washer and go immediately to the shower,” the nurse said. “It’s stressful.”

With gyms, libraries and other services closed, the places many depended upon for survival to shower or charge phones are also no longer available.

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Lauren, a 29-year-old server in San Jose, had been paying a gym membership to take showers. She declined to give her last name because she said her employer doesn’t know she lives out of her camper truck.

There’s a whole population of people who work part time and are in between places, Lauren said, who depend on gyms as their main place to get clean.

“It just really struck me that they weren’t being deemed essential, not for working out, but as far as using the showers,” Lauren said. “I think that was a mistake.”

In Berkeley, volunteers with the Berkeley Free Clinic have installed makeshift hand washing stations because they say the 22 stations the city installed are not enough. The clinic’s hand washing stations consist of two plastic buckets, a pump and a soap dispenser with instructions written in permanent ink of who to call if it runs out.

Portable toilets at the encampments could be breeding grounds for the virus, Perry said, and some people are afraid to use them. And with many businesses closed, Pendleton said he’s noticed more people relieving themselves behind dumpsters and other discrete locations. Spots that were recently cleaned up are dirty again, he said.

“It’s really an issue,” Pendleton said. “There’s poop all over town and it’s going to pile up.”

But beyond the critical need for expanded sanitation services, advocates for unsheltered residents agree, food is the biggest issue.

Melissa Moore has been able to work with St. Vincent de Paul, a church-backed organization that does outreach to homeless people, to get some food delivered to the tent communities in San Leandro. Still, she said the organization can’t do it all alone.

“They are at the mercy of me and my networking and other members at St. Vincent’s, but other than that, they are not getting food drops,” Moore said. “It’s getting to the point where St. Vincent can’t keep carrying them.”

For more information about how to donate your time or resources to those in need, see these KQED guides: