Across San Mateo and Santa Clara counties there are more than 11,000 people who are unhoused. The last count, in January 2019, found 1,512 people in homeless shelters or transitional housing, or sleeping on the streets or in cars, RVs or tents in San Mateo County and 9,706 in Santa Clara County.
These individuals are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many homeless services are provided in congregate settings with many people under one roof, which can make it easier for the new coronavirus to spread. Many unhoused people are also older adults or may have underlying medical conditions.
"We're concerned for the homeless people we serve, and also the community at large," said Brian Greenberg, vice president of programs and services at LifeMoves, a homeless services nonprofit based in Menlo Park. "The whole community does better if the homeless are housed."
The state, counties, local nonprofits and cities are each taking on a different role in helping to tackle the thorny challenge of finding shelter for the unhoused amidst a shelter-in-place order.
"There is nothing more central to our wellness and sense of well-being than our home, our own nest," said Greenberg in a recent video explaining how the nonprofit has responded to the pandemic. "COVID-19 has left many of us feeling anxious," he added. "These fears are real, but they are exponentially magnified for the people we serve at Maple Street who don't have a home to shelter in."
Maple Street is the name of LifeMoves' homeless shelter in Redwood City, which serves the homeless throughout San Mateo County and has capacity for about 140 beds during the pandemic.
Through a series of preventative health measures, including expanded social distancing, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported among residents as of May 7.
The shelter has reduced its capacity to enable social distancing. To allow more people to stay at the shelter, the state and county worked to place double-wide trailers at the site that are being used as additional temporary shelter.
In addition to the adult shelters LifeMoves runs, Greenberg explained, the nonprofit also runs family shelters, including one in Menlo Park. The program is intended to enable families to develop skills and save up money to help them transition into stable housing. With the shelter in place in effect, Greenberg added, it's been hard to help families with that last step. Landlords have had difficulty showing properties, and finding housing has been especially challenging for people who want to leave the Peninsula to access less costly housing, since they've been discouraged from traveling.
The pandemic has meant that the throughput the nonprofit prides itself on, in helping families transition to more stable housing quickly before moving on to assist new families, hasn't been moving at its normal rate. The family shelters are currently all full, and no spread of COVID-19 has been reported in those shelters either, he added.
In addition, the rotating faith-based homeless shelter hosted mainly by churches in Palo Alto and one in Menlo Park has remained at 100% capacity. And at the Opportunity Services Center in Palo Alto, demand for services is up between 20% and 25%, according to Greenberg. Individuals are worried about contracting the virus and are seeking access to hygiene supplies and masks in particular, he said.
In addition, the most vulnerable unhoused locals are being put up in hotel rooms.
In early April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom launched "Project Roomkey" with the goal of securing more than 15,000 hotel rooms for homeless individuals. The county is expected to receive cost-share reimbursements of up to 75% by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and provide wraparound services for the homeless, including custodial, laundry, security and support staff.
Such hotel rooms are prioritized for unhoused people who don't have COVID-19 symptoms but are high risk, including people over 65 or who have underlying health conditions, according to County Manager Mike Callagy. So far there are 168 formerly unhoused people being housed in hotels and about 723 are sheltered overall as of May 12. They may also be used to help isolate or quarantine unhoused people who have been exposed to COVID-19 and don't need to be hospitalized, or unhoused people who have tested positive for COVID-19 but don't need to be hospitalized.
One continuing challenge is how to support and prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people who are resistant to going into shelter. "That's really a small number of individuals on the Peninsula," Greenberg said. Sometimes, it's because they have serious mental health illnesses that have been untreated for a long time, he added.
The nonprofit continues to bring people who remain unhoused cloth and medical-quality face masks, and hygiene products like hand sanitizer, Greenberg added.
In Menlo Park, the city, LifeMoves and representatives from the police department work routinely together to support the city's homeless, but have faced some challenges in convincing people to seek shelter.
A team made up of Rhonda Coffman, Menlo Park's deputy community development director, as well as representatives from the police department and LifeMoves, meets weekly to discuss concerns about the city's unhoused residents, most of whom live downtown or in encampments in the marshes near the Bay. Outreach staff routinely ask them if they're willing to be assessed for what kinds of assistance they're eligible for, such as health care, financial aid, or housing vouchers. People who refuse to be assessed can't have it forced on them, Coffman said. They need to consent to being assessed, and the "vast majority" of homeless individuals in Menlo Park refuse, she said.
Still, outreach staff continue to visit the city's unhoused residents two or three times a week and provide supplies like food cards, grocery gift cards and hygiene items, and check in to see if they need medical assistance or help to coordinate such assistance, she said.
Since COVID-19 began, she said, about five people have agreed to undergo assessments and are now under case management to access assistance.
With the shelter-in-place orders in effect, the group is not interested in breaking up encampments that people want to stay in, but rather providing them with resources people living there might need, she added.
But in a pandemic, the chance that people who remain unhoused might catch or transmit the new coronavirus adds a public health concern to the existing ones unhoused people face.
For a time in April, Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller was considering proposing an ordinance that would require a person to accept shelter if there is space available, citing a recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case that he said could allow it. The penalty would be light and waived once a person accepted shelter.
"The question is, what tools can we use to try to convince them to move into safety?" he said in an interview.
The City Council discussed the idea of such an ordinance at its April 14 meeting, and agreed to have it brought back on the agenda.
However, Mueller later dropped the idea. "I have decided to hold onto the homeless ordinance idea for now and continue to work through our non-profit homeless service providers to address the needs of the homeless in our community," he said in an April 22 email.