‘In our 130-year history, we’ve never faced anything like this.’ COVID hits homeless shelters

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At the beginning of the pandemic, the city deployed hand-washing stations to several large homeless encampments. But maintenance has been spotty. Photo by Anna Scott.

In recent weeks, coronavirus infections have surged among LA’s homeless population. Group shelters are having a particularly hard time controlling outbreaks. 

Since October, positivity rates among unsheltered people tested for COVID-19 have gone from about 2.3% to 9.8%, according to Dr. Heidi Behforouz, chief medical officer for LA County’s Housing For Health program, which provides care for medically vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. 

Rates within the sheltered homeless population (i.e., people living in various types of shelters or other temporary facilities) have gone from about 2% to 10% during that same time period.

While those are still lower than the positivity rate within LA’s general population, the rapid increase is alarming, said Dr. Behforouz. It likely reflects the larger surge tearing through LA County.

“It is reflecting the bigger picture,” said Behforouz. “I also feel that as It's getting colder and people are coming from the outside into congregate settings, there's obviously a higher risk.”

Group shelters throughout LA County are struggling to manage the growing number of infections. A Salvation Army shelter in the City of Bell, one of the largest shelters in the country, has seen nearly 50 cases among staff and clients, according to county public health department data. That’s despite safety measures such as operating at reduced capacity, more frequent cleanings, mandatory mask wearing, and plexiglass dividers in the dining room, according to Steve Lytle, who directs the shelter.

“My goal from the beginning was to try and keep as many beds open [as possible], so we can serve as many people as possible and keep our staff intact,” he said. But striking that balance has been extremely challenging.

In Skid Row, meanwhile, a surge in cases during Christmas week led to setting up a temporary quarantine/triage site inside a semi-permanent structure behind the main building of the Union Rescue Mission.

It was created in order to quickly move people who tested positive out of nearby group settings where the virus could easily spread. “As we know, the hospitals are full,” said Dr. Behforouz.

“I think I think we've had 22 [positive] cases in the last week or two,” said Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission. That number is on top of the clients coming to the facility from other shelters. 

“It’s the most challenging situation, I think, in my career,” said Bales, whose leg was amputated in 2016 due to a life-threatening infection he contracted at work. “I think in our 130-year history, we’ve never faced anything like this.”