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Temporary shelters open across LA to house homeless in novel coronavirus pandemic

Westwood Recreation Center has been sheltering locals experiencing homelessness since March 20, following a citywide executive order to repurpose recreation centers during the new coronavirus pandemic.
(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Hyeyoon (Alyssa) Choi

March 27, 2020 7:47 p.m.

The Westwood Recreation Center has been temporarily sheltering locals experiencing homelessness since March 20 amid “safer at home” orders, raising concerns about health safety.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti directed the city’s homeless population of approximately 59,000 to move indoors in response to the exponential spread of the new coronavirus in LA County. The WRC was one of the first 13 temporary shelters open in the city.

The initiative came after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to stay home and as the city scrambles to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. A total of 1,465 cases and 26 deaths related to COVID-19 have been confirmed in LA County as of Friday.

New research published by faculty from UCLA, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that the pandemic could cause 400 deaths and hospitalize 2,600 people experiencing homelessness in LA County.

Given executive orders to practice social distancing and avoid gatherings of 10 or more people, the influx of homeless residents to recreation centers may seem counterintuitive. Some are concerned these temporary shelters could become “hotbeds” of COVID-19.

Street Watch LA, a homelessness advocacy organization, tweeted Saturday that the mayor’s shelter initiative for those experiencing homelessness could contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Crowding people in shelters doesn’t seem like a great idea,” said Rhiana Caterisano, a member of Street Watch LA. “It’s the opposite of what you want when you want to quarantine people.”

UCLA public health expert and professor of epidemiology Timothy Brewer said the shelters could allow health officials to isolate and contain those with the virus.

“On the upside, having individuals in a setting where you can rapidly identify and isolate them, as opposed to letting them be on the streets where they could become symptomatic and spread infection in the community, may reduce the risk of transmission,” Brewer said.

However, Brewer acknowledged that there is a risk-reward trade-off. He said asymptomatic individuals could still arrive at shelters and spread the virus.

Screening people for the disease and taking temperatures before they enter the centers would help mitigate potential dangers of being clustered in enclosed spaces, Brewer said.

The LA City Council passed a motion March 17 to use currently unoccupied city properties as emergency housing. It stipulated the beds be at least 6 feet apart and set out provisions for hygiene services.

The preambles of the motion stressed the urgency of sheltering people experiencing homelessness in light of closures of public facilities, where such people frequent to maintain hygiene.

The same motion called on Newsom to make hotel and motel rooms available for unhoused residents, a move homelessness advocates are lobbying for. The next day, Newsom signed an executive order that extended the state’s power to do just that.

Under California Government Code Section 8572, when a state of emergency is declared, the governor is given the authority to seize any private property for purposes related to the emergency. This includes commandeering hotels.

Newsom’s executive order handed over most control to the counties, which are now expected to identify and secure leases with available hotels and motels.

The LA County Emergency Operations Center is the office responsible for finding isolated medical sheltering facilities for COVID-19 patients, as well as for people experiencing homelessness.

It has so far secured two sites to house people that have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results and either cannot stay at their homes or are experiencing homelessness, said Vanessa Martinez, a spokesperson for the LA CEOC, in an emailed statement. The two sites are Dockweiler RV Park in Playa Del Rey and the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel & Conference Center in Pomona.

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Hyeyoon (Alyssa) Choi
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