Deadly Hepatitis Outbreak in San Diego Exacerbated by Homelessness

SAN DIEGO (CN) — The San Diego City Council is seeking solutions to a hepatitis A outbreak that has killed 16 people and infected more than 400, and is exacerbated the city’s growing population of homeless people, which increases during the winter.

Advocates for the homeless and public health say the nation’s eighth-largest city hasn’t done enough.

On Wednesday Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the city will open three bridge shelters in tents to get people off the street and into temporary housing while they wait for permanent housing. The first tent is to open in downtown’s east village in December.

Each tent will be equipped with more than 100 beds, restrooms and showers. Support services will be offered including health care, alcohol and substance abuse counseling and job search training.

But community members who attended the Wednesday meeting of the City Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness were not satisfied. They said December is a sluggish response to the fatal outbreak of disease.

Hepatitis A is highly contagious and attacks the liver. It can spread through food and water, contact with an infected person or inadequate sanitation.

County health officials directed the city in late August to sanitize city streets and provide more public restrooms and hand-washing stations for homeless people throughout the city.

Much of the committee meeting and public comments centered on the mayor’s response – or lack of it – to proposals from the homelessness committee, including safe-parking and care zones where people can camp in their cars or tents on city-owned lots and have access to restrooms and services providers.

The mayor said through a staff member that he is “open to conversations” but did not offer a timeline or a concrete response to the idea.

“On the safe-parking and care zones, you share the mayor is open to further discussions,” Councilwoman Georgette Gomez said.

“What does that mean? Further discussions in the next week? In the next month? The issue is here. I’m going to push this really hard today.”

Public commenters mentioned that city officials were able to house 10,000 people at Qualcomm Stadium within a few days after thousands were evacuated during wildfires, so the city is capable of housing people quickly during an emergency.

San Diego’s unsheltered homelessness population has grown significantly the past few years and was up 14 percent in 2017, with over 5,600 people in the county, according to an annual point-in-time count by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. In downtown San Diego, the number spiked 27 percent higher compared to 2016.

At the same time the amount of unsheltered people has gone up, the number of homeless San Diegans in shelters decreased by 6 percent. Homeless advocates say the discrepancy highlights the problems with the current shelter system, where homeless people don’t utilize shelters for various reasons including requiring families be separated, safety concerns, long wait lists or not allowing pets.

Members of the homelessness committee said the city is working on a collaborative “rapid rehousing” plan to partner with homeless service-providers to house 100 people in permanent housing by mid-October. City staff said the effort would “kick start the discussion on how to make the system more efficient.”

The committee is also considering the tiny home village model popular in cities such as Portland, Oregon and Seattle to create transitional and permanent housing stock in the city.

They also declared a shelter crisis related to the hepatitis A outbreak, which will enable the city to seek funding from the state and federal governments.

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