It took coronavirus to provoke Los Angeles to move homeless people off the streets. But what the city is doing could make the pandemic worse.
Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced an emergency plan to “add 1,600 emergency shelter beds in thirteen City recreation centers” within a week, and to scale up to 6,000 beds “in the coming days.”
The idea, he said, was to stop the spread of coronavirus by moving the homeless indoors.
Some advocates for the homeless were enthusiastic.
“It’s a good thing,” Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission downtown, told me. “And I wish it would’ve all happened sooner, before this pandemic.”
He says that homeless people have fewer risk factors for coronavirus, such as overseas travel. And if they are sick, it is more humane to bring them in.
“Leaving them outside would be a brutal way to let somebody suffer and die,” he said.
It is hard to disagree with that.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises caution. The agency’s guidelines say moving the homeless indoors may not be the best idea if it congregates them together.
The CDC specifically advises against moving people from encampments, unless “individual housing units are available.”
With New York announcing this week that 30 homeless people had tested positive for coronavirus in city shelters, moving L.A.’s homeless into common indoor spaces, shared by hundreds of other people, seems risky.
In fact, California is letting convicts out of prison because of fear that living in close quarters could make them more vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus. But L.A. is doing the opposite when it comes to the homeless.
Some homeless people in L.A. are glad to have the shelter, and ready access to soap and water. But others told the Los Angeles Times they feared the recreation centers will become “hotbeds” of infection, and preferred their own “social distancing” outside.
San Francisco’s approach has been to move people out of existing shelters, to create more space inside, and to provide emergency shelters elsewhere. Beyond that, city officials are only bringing in the most vulnerable people — the elderly, for example — while giving “sanitizing equipment and advice on social distancing to those left outside.”
The Federal officials told the San Francisco Chronicle “that they’re finding it’s safer to leave homeless camps outside in the open air, with proper spacing and sanitation facilities, than to move people into cramped settings indoors.”
The Chronicle adds that the Trump administration has praised San Francisco’s approach.
So why is L.A. doing the opposite?
At a recreation center in Westwood this week, Breitbart News spoke to homeless men waiting to enter, as well as staff outside. A shuttle bus marked “SHELTER” circulated in the area, picking up anyone who wanted to come in, after asking them “screening” questions and taking their temperatures.
There seemed to be no attempt to prioritize the most vulnerable: the goal was simply to move people off the streets.
One man told Breitbart News that he had been moved from the nearby shelter at the Armory — but that was because the National Guard needed the space, not because the city was creating more “social distancing” among residents. Reports indicate that beds inside the recreation centers will be six feet apart — but the residents will move about. Can they be spaced six feet apart at all times?
Moreover, the Los Angeles Police Department has told residents that men and women will not be separated, nor will children and adults. The setup seems inherently unsafe for women and children.
It is no stretch to say that a single infection — missed by screening — could spread widely within that environment. In New York, one infected homeless man was sent to a shelter from the hospital because he was not sick enough.
Moreover, there are concerns among some communities that infection could spread from the recreation centers.
Two police are posted at each recreation center — but they are there simply to observe, not to confine those inside.
The Westwood recreation center is in an industrial area. Not so a center in Cheviot Hills, which is in a park, near sports fields and playgrounds. Breitbart News observed children playing near the entrance there earlier this week.
Other centers that are reportedly under consideration include a recreation center in Pacific Palisades, which is next to a playground and near the commercial center of the community, including grocery stores and pharmacies.
City workers are also at risk.
Mayor Garcetti announced that he had activated the Disaster Service Worker program, which will place some City employees in temporary roles” at the recreation centers-turned-homeless shelters.
The Disaster Service Worker program considers city employees “impressed” — a term from the late eighteenth century, when American sailors were forced into the British navy.
Breitbart News observed several city workers loading supplies into the Cheviot Hills recreation center this week. They wore masks, but seemed nervous. Two exchanged a hug — against “social distancing” recommendations.
There also seems to be no plan or timeline for moving the homeless out of the recreation centers when the crisis abates. Residents are concerned that the heavily used recreation centers — a crucial outlet — could be lost to them.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, who has been raising the alarm about homelessness in L.A. as a public health hazard for months, was optimistic.
He shared Rev. Bales’s enthusiasm that something was finally being done — and that California Gov. Gavin Newsom was talking about mental health problems among the homeless.
But he acknowledged to Breitbart News that Garcetti’s current plan seemed to have serious flaws: “This could go very bad, don’t get me wrong.”
Pinsky hastened to add: “They’re staying nimble … and they’re not letting ideology blind them.” He hopes for a massive, “FEMA-style operation with tents.”
Many residents would prefer that — for their sake, and for the homeless.
Homelessness is not just a human tragedy and a public health risk. It is a political problem for Garcetti, and arguably prevented him from running for president in 2020. The crisis provides him an opportunity to do something.
Do “something,” yes. But please try something better than this.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.