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Efforts to aid those experiencing homelessness must persist after COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has led to new forms of support for the population of people experiencing homelessness in LA and across the state. Once the pandemic ends, that supports needs to continue (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Chris Rybus

April 13, 2020 6:33 p.m.

Stay at home, stock up on goods and perform basic hygiene regularly – this is the common refrain during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But when there’s no home to go to, no reliable access to food and no stockpile of sanitizer, those rules quickly become difficult to follow.

In 2019, there were 58,936 individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County and 36,300 in the City of LA itself, according to the LA Times. The coronavirus pandemic is a huge concern, considering this population’s inconsistent access to basic needs.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began to affect day-to-day life in LA, organizations supporting populations of people experiencing homelessness had to kick their operations into overdrive – and they’ve made commendable progress. Unfortunately, their action was necessary because of the city’s failure to better address homelessness before the pandemic began.

Now that coronavirus is here indefinitely, the city has started taking serious action, including sheltering people in hotels that were previously unused and establishing hand-washing stations at major homeless encampments throughout LA.

Although it is hard to find much to celebrate during the pandemic, one silver lining may be a more humanistic approach to homelessness. The current pandemic we are all battling may be able to act as a catalyst for mitigating the problem of homelessness that LA has faced for years. These additional resources could have been enacted before the pandemic even began – but now that they’re here, lawmakers must institutionalize these changes in order to serve these individuals better in the future.

Change seems to be coming in these dire times, and while LA’s problem of homelessness is not a new concern, solutions need to persist long after the pandemic ends.

Even student organizations were playing their parts before having stepped up during the coronavirus outbreak to help people experiencing homelessness.

Bruin Shelter, a student-run volunteer organization helping to provide shelter for students experiencing homelessness in the greater LA area, had adapted its procedures to maintain care, while also keeping volunteers and students healthy.

Many UCLA students have left campus, causing Bruin Shelter to see a decrease in volunteers to maintain its operations.

“We hired full-time resident assistants to be able to stay at the shelter 24/7 so we’re not constantly switching volunteer staff in and out to limit the transmission,” said Kathleen Len, the external vice president of Bruin Shelter and a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.

Len said she has noticed a spotlight on the inadequacies that exist for populations of people experiencing homelessness and she hopes the attention being drawn to these issues will cause those in power to find solutions.

But more resources are needed to aid an entire city’s homeless population.

In order to aid the community in this troubling time, the LA City Council has given the North Westwood Neighborhood Council additional money for assistance, specifically for the connection between homelessness and the coronavirus, said Michael Skiles, the president of the NWWNC.

Skiles has already allocated most of the money to inject a much-needed boost for many of Westwood’s residents. Of the original $1,000 allocated to them to deal with COVID-19 and homelessness, $750 was spent on grocery runs to provide food and toiletries to those living on the streets. Once an additional $4,000 was made available, he donated $1,000 each to the Community Programs Office Food Closet, the Westwood Recreation Center’s temporary homeless shelter and the Westwood Village Improvement Association for hygiene and snack packs and discounts for local health care workers’ lunches.

“We’re able to do more when we’ve got great partner organizations who are on the ground already connecting with people, already helping people,” Skiles said. “A little bit of money can make these existing projects go a lot further.”

It is only after this crisis began that the city started to take action to assist those who may need it most, with seemingly simple fixes. But it is in the city council’s best interests to continue this aid long after the coronavirus is dealt with.

Safe Parking LA, a project that allows for those sleeping in their vehicles to stay overnight in secure lots, is another organization stepping up to mitigate the spread of coronavirus to vulnerable populations.

Scott Sale, the executive director of Safe Parking LA, said they have been more careful in the wake of the pandemic.

For those most at risk in its services, Sale said they have been able to find shelter in hotels and motels. This elderly population is about 15% to 20% of Safe Parking LA’s total clients.

“It’s been impressive that the city and county went out of their way along with the state,” Sale said.

But prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the stagnation in building affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness was anything but impressive.

One could argue most of the attention and resources are not being funneled to the populations of people experiencing homelessness quickly enough to make a difference. Instead, the priority has been toward a stimulus package to the nation and its businesses. However, this is a step in the right direction to aiding populations of people experiencing homelessness and demonstrating that resources for those in need matter now more than ever. People are taking on a communal mindset during this outbreak, which is allowing for more solutions to come to fruition.

It’s a mindset that must last after this pandemic.

Even without a home, plentiful food and sanitations, there are those trying to provide some sense of comfort and care for one of the most at-risk groups. Now it looks as though the city’s priorities are changing.

But if LA will continue to change them in the right direction is another question.

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