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Vulnerable Homeless Population Face Great Risk From Coronavirus Outbreak

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- Health officials all around the world are struggling to keep the Coronavirus contained. But there is one group of people that would pose an even tougher challenge if the virus should invade their ranks: the homeless.

There is no isolation under the I-980 freeway overpass in Oakland, no place to quarantine for 14 days. Clarissa Gregg has a home in Hayward, but she has friends in the encampment and doesn't have much doubt what would happen if someone there got sick.

"It would take over, because they're not getting medical attention," she said. "They're not isolated. It's scary."

She's not the only one who's concerned. All across the Bay Area health officials are meeting to figure out what to do if large numbers of street people began coming down with the virus.

"If something that major were to happen, I mean, God help us. Because there's no way to find out who they came in contact with," said Tim Lewis.

He lives in one of Oakland's so-called "tough-shed" villages. Lewis used to live in his car and says people in the encampments are already so sick and weak from living outside, he thinks many would not survive an outbreak.

Their first line of defense may be the people from STOMP, a homeless medical outreach program.

Two days, a week Dr. Danielle Williams visits the camps in a mobile clinic, administering street medicine. She says education about good hygiene is important, but there's only so much the homeless can do.

"If you are ill, maybe stay in your tent. Maybe move your tent," Williams suggested. "So, I think we have to try to avoid that scenario, because it would be complicated if it did start spreading in the encampments."

Dr. Williams thinks it would be a wise investment for the city to provide more hygiene materials, such as hand-washing stations and face masks. And she's concerned that an outbreak of the virus would only stigmatize the homeless even more at a time when they might need compassion more than ever.

"Since we already need them to get more services and people to be on their side, I think it would make that job a lot harder," Williams said.

On Tuesday, coronavirus concerns led the San Francisco Department of Public Health to cancel its Project Homeless Connect health services event at the Bill Graham Civic Center. The agency said it didn't want to create a "mass gathering."

No rescheduled date for the event has been announced.

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