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Despite Outreach, Few Bay Area Homeless Occupy New Shelters As Coronavirus Epidemic Deepens

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) -- Homeless outreach workers are passing out hand sanitizer, checking temperatures and pleading with people not to crowd together. But a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged thousands of hotel rooms to help the homeless survive the coronavirus pandemic, most of those rooms sit empty.

Homeless Person Oakland
In this March 19, 2020 A homeless encampment in Oakland. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

For most of California's estimated 150,000 homeless, the message they're getting — if they get one at all — is to isolate themselves if they feel sick and call a doctor if symptoms worsen.

"Obviously these are people who are writing recommendations who don't have any direct experience with what a person goes through when they are homeless," said Joe Smith, advocacy director for Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento nonprofit group that provides meals and services to the homeless.

RELATED: S.F. Supervisor Personally Funds Hotel Rooms For Homeless

Smith said he hasn't seen any outreach from public officials to homeless people, many of whom live in tent encampments with dozens or hundreds of people at each site.

Statewide, cities and counties said they are setting up hand-washing stations, portable toilets and arranging for trash pickup at larger encampments as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended. Many shelters are restricting the number of people they will accept to allow for social distancing as they battle a virus spread through coughing and sneezing.

Even after Newsom's executive order committing $150 million to help homeless amid the crisis, it's not clear how many homeless people are sick or have been tested. At least one homeless person died, in Santa Clara County.

Anne Miskey, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Union Station Homeless Services in Los Angeles County, said she is troubled that few homeless people appear to be getting COVID-19 tests.

The group, which operates two shelters, brought three people in for testing, she said, but two were denied and one was tested. He was negative for the coronavirus despite a high fever and coughing.

In San Francisco, thermometers to detect fever appear to be the main tool to check for sick people, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

"Unfortunately shelters don't have them yet — supposedly the back order is finally coming in today," she said in an email Wednesday. City spokesman Randolph Quezada said the city received the thermometers this week.

San Diego County, with about 8,000 homeless, has been the most proactive of counties, securing 2,000 rooms and moving in more than 200 people. San Francisco, with a similar number of homeless people, has said it has 300 rooms and is still preparing to move people into them.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said public health nurses have been doing daily checks on people in homeless shelters, while others roam the streets to look for people with symptoms, check temperatures and provide kits with soap, hand sanitizer and coronavirus information, he said.

"We're just pushing through this as fast as we can to try to get these systems set up," Fletcher said.

About 3,200 people in California are infected with the virus and at least 67 have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

CDC guidelines say "unless individual housing units are available," officials should not clear tent encampments, which might disperse people, but they should be stocked with clean water, toilets and soap.

Figuring out how to safeguard people who don't have homes has become an issue for communities nationwide as the number of infections leaps, said Adriane Casalotti of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

"You can't just say 'Stay home' to individuals like that," she said.

Gov. Newsom said Wednesday that the 4,300 hotel and motel rooms acquired by counties to move the most vulnerable fall far short of the 51,000 needed, even as already acquired rooms sit empty.

A rift in San Francisco between homeless advocates and Mayor London Breed over who should move into the rooms prompted one San Francisco supervisor to conduct his own negotiations. Supervisor Dean Preston said he used private donations to get families and older women out of group shelters and into 20 private rooms.

"Every minute counts here," said Preston, whose district includes the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. "Getting folks into individual rooms is good for all of us. If we don't, it's a risk to vulnerable populations, neighbors, and our health care system, and this will just be more severe and go on longer."

© 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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