Homeless in Los Angeles in the Time of Coronavirus

Tents, shelters and belongings line a street near downtown Los Angeles. (Nathan Solis / CNS)

(CN) – Several hours after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the closure of movie theaters, fitness centers, gyms, bars and nightclubs to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus homeless people woke up wondering where they could go to shower and charge their phones.

Garcetti’s announcement on Sunday night that the closures would not impact pharmacies, grocery stores and food banks went into effect at midnight and on Monday morning budding filmmaker Angelo Mike, who lives in his car, showered in a Target parking lot with a water bottle.

Mike, 34, regularly showers at Planet Fitness and edits videos at his local library.

“I have friends who live in downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood who offer to let me shower at their place, but it would be about $6 in gas to drive there,” Mike told Courthouse News. “Someone messaged me about portable showers in Echo Park and since it’s going to be 44 degrees in the morning, I don’t want to try and birdbath in that.”

Closures of gyms, bars and movie theaters will be in place until March 31, Garcetti said.

“We are all first-responders in this crisis,” Garcetti said in a statement. “I don’t take these steps lightly, but they are absolutely necessary – because our decisions today have the power to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.”

L.A. County followed the city’s shutdown policy within all unincorporated areas, impacting about 10 million people. Approximately 59,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County – with 16,000 living in their cars like Mike, according to the last official count conducted by county officials. And now that population will not have access to libraries and gyms, which have become the de facto service providers for internet access, showers and bathrooms.

County public health officials announced Monday afternoon 25 new confirmed cases of novel coronavirus over the weekend, bringing the total to 95 in LA County and over 430 across the state. On Monday night, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported that one of the two deaths reported Monday in Santa Clara County – in Northern California – was a homeless person. 

When reached by phone Monday afternoon Reverend Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, said the homeless shelter had quarantine sites for single adults and a separate space set up for families at its downtown LA location.

“We don’t want anyone to suffer alone out on the streets. We’ve invited anyone with a fever or cough to come in, but even we have our limit,” said Bales.

The faith-based organization has space for approximately 175 single adults to self-isolate, Bales said, and county officials have announced plans to use RVs for the same purpose at Dockweiler Beach.

But Union Rescue Mission does not receive county assistance for its operation, according to Bales, which has left the organization scrambling to purchase personal protective gear, biohazard bags and other items from Amazon just as news began to break about the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. The gear is meant for staff and those who may be infected with the novel coronavirus who cannot safely self-isolate.

Bales says more people are coming to the shelter for food now and he estimates the situation will only get worse.

Asked about the effect of the closure of libraries and gyms on the homeless population, Bales said, “It seems that instead of service increases we’re having them decrease first.”

“I sincerely hope that help is coming in the near future,” he added. 

Newsom announced on Sunday that state officials plan to house people living on the streets in commandeered motels across the state but it was unclear as to which cities would participate.

“We really should have done that before the pandemic,” Bales said. “All we can do now is our best to address our perfect storm.”

Bales says he had been in contact with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to relay what supplies they need and thinks the federal government needs to get involved on the ground level.

“I hope FEMA comes to our aid,” said Bales. “It really is an all hands on deck time.”

Guidelines established by the Centers For Diseases Control and Prevention are now adopted in LA County, which limits community gatherings to no more than 50 people.

“While we are taking these measures to further prevent the spread of coronavirus we will more than likely continue to see the number of cases increase and expand over the next several days if not weeks,” LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said on Monday. 

Garcetti announced an eviction moratorium for those impacted by the health crisis and county officials said their own moratorium is on the way, along with protections for businesses and homeowners affected by the virus.

Over the weekend, two families occupied a vacant home owned by the California Department of Transportation in northeast Los Angeles. Over 150 homes in the neighborhoods of El Sereno, Alhambra and South Pasadena were purchased for a failed freeway expansion project and have sat vacant for years despite a housing and rental crisis.

Now there is even more urgency due to the coronavirus to use that housing, said Ruby Gordillo, a mother of three who is now living in one of those homes with another family and an elderly homeless man.

The advocacy group Reclaiming Our Homes staged a rally outside the home over the weekend as the families moved in.

Gordillo says she and her family were living in a studio apartment near downtown. 

Martha Escudero and her two daughters have been couch surfing for the last year but now they are staying in the El Sereno home where they have hung a sign that reads, “self-quarantine in process.”

“It’s a health crisis and that’s why it’s important that we’re able to house the most vulnerable,” said Escudero when reached by phone on Monday. “I was very aware there was a housing crisis, but I was not aware that there were so many vacant houses. It turns out we do have housing for everyone that’s on the streets, but the government is not providing it. I feel it’s immoral to leave people abandoned on the streets.”  

On Monday, state Assemblymen Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and David Chiu, D-San Francisco, asked Newsom to use other vacant homes owned by CalTrans to house homeless families amid the coronavirus emergency.

“The confluence of burgeoning homelessness, widespread layoffs the housing affordability crisis and the health care emergency brought on by the COVID-19 emergency, the impact on those who are already homeless and those who are most at risk: economically disadvantaged Californians requires us to act boldly and rapidly,” the lawmakers wrote to Newsom in a letter on Monday.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, but the California Legislature granted Newsom’s request Monday to pass emergency bills injecting $1 billion into the state’s economy. Part of those bills focus on sheltering homeless people and the funds can be used to requisition hotel beds to shelter those without homes. 

Newsom also issued an executive order Monday night, part of which allows local governments to halt evictions.

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