Stay-At-Home Without a Home: How San Diego’s Efforts to Help the Homeless Highlight Inequality in Society
California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, has led the state’s effort to secure housing for thousands of vulnerable homeless individuals. The state has leased or purchased over 10,000 hotel and motel rooms to house the most vulnerable individuals experiencing homelessness. According to Voice of San Diego, a regional media organization, San Diego has about 1,100 of those rooms. But for the more than 9,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the city, that’s simply not enough. Makeshift shelters are being created at a record pace to try and bridge that disparity. San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless has launched “Operation Shelter to Home,” where the city has converted Golden Hall and the Downtown Convention Center into large-scale shelters. The shelters provide those facing homelessness with “security, meals, showers, bathrooms, laundry, behavioral health services, healthcare, health screenings, and WIFi” for those who can work from home.
This isn’t the city of San Diego’s first public health crisis. In 2017, an outbreak of Hepatitis A left twenty San Diegans dead, disproportionately affecting those experiencing homelessness. The city was ostracized for its slow response to the crisis. Responding to criticism, the city adopted a two-pronged strategy of finding permanent housing solutions for homeless individuals and creating “temporary bridge shelters.” These shelters would be staffed with healthcare professionals and connect those in need with resources available to them.
With the Hepatitis A outbreak still at the forefront of city official’s memories, San Diego was far quicker to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Temporary shelters were opened, handwashing stations went up across the county, and nurses were assigned to help screen sheltered individuals for the virus. As far as we can tell, the efforts seem to be working. As of April 16th, there are only fourteen recorded cases of COVID-19 amongst the city’s homeless population. Those individuals have been placed in the state’s hotel rooms if they did not need ICU treatment.
San Diego is my hometown. While I commend the city for its prompt response to helping those experiencing homelessness, inequities in the treatment of those individuals abound. The state’s homeless population is an aging one. From 2015 to 2016, the number of adults over 55 in the homeless community doubled. Income inequality and soaring rents have pushed elderly individuals out of their homes and onto the streets. COVID-19 is far more fatal for seniors and those with pre-existing conditions. Individuals experiencing homelessness are far more likely to suffer from illness and pre-existing diseases because of their lack of access to reliable healthcare. Thus, homeless individuals in the city are older, sicker, and more frequently exposed to a virus that is extremely dangerous for them.
Homelessness needs to not be viewed as an illness on society, but rather as a symptom of a greater illness: inequality. Our efforts to protect the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis have revealed the deeper problems our society faces. Shelter-at-home orders don’t work for individuals that have been priced out of a home to begin with.