A woman sleeps as another sits on her cot in a homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in San Diego. When the coronavirus emerged in the United States this year, public health officials and advocates for the homeless feared the virus would rip through shelters and tent encampments, ravaging vulnerable people who often have chronic health issues. Yet, the virus so far does not appear to have brought devastation to the homeless population as many feared. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Coronavirus hasn’t devastated the homeless in U.S., as many feared

‘I don’t know what we’re going to see in an aftermath’

When the coronavirus emerged in the U.S. this year, public health officials and advocates for the homeless feared the virus would rip through shelters and tent encampments, ravaging vulnerable people who often have chronic health issues.

They scrambled to move people into hotel rooms, thinned out crowded shelters and moved tents into designated spots at sanctioned outdoor camps.

While shelters saw some large COVID-19 outbreaks, the virus so far doesn’t appear to have brought devastation to the homeless population as many feared. However, researchers and advocates say much is unknown about how the pandemic is affecting the estimated half-million people without housing in the U.S.

In a country that’s surpassed 5 million identified cases and 169,000 deaths, researchers don’t know why there appear to be so few outbreaks among the homeless.

“I am shocked, I guess I can say, because it’s a very vulnerable population. I don’t know what we’re going to see in an aftermath,” said Dr. Deborah Borne, who oversees health policy for COVID-19 homeless response at San Francisco’s public health department. “That’s why it’s called a novel virus, because we don’t know.”

More than 200 of an estimated 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco have tested positive for the virus, and half came from an outbreak at a homeless shelter in April. One homeless person is among the city’s 69 deaths.

In other places with large homeless populations, the numbers are similarly low. In King County, which includes Seattle, more than 400 of an estimated 12,000 homeless residents have been diagnosed. In Los Angeles County, more than 1,200 of an estimated 66,000 homeless people have been diagnosed.

It’s slightly higher in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, where nearly 500 of an estimated 7,400 homeless people have tested positive, including nine who died.

Health experts say the numbers don’t indicate how widespread the disease is or how it might play out long term. It’s unknown how many people have died of conditions indirectly related to the virus. While the coronavirus may dissipate more easily outdoors than indoors, living outside has its own risks.

READ MORE: ‘I’ve fallen through the cracks’: Victoria woman calls herself new face of homelessness

With public libraries and other places closed, homeless people say they’re short on food and water, restrooms and cash. In San Francisco, 50 homeless people died over an eight-week period in April and May — twice the usual rate, said Dr. Barry Zevin, medical director of the public health department’s street medicine program.

The official causes are pending, but Zevin notes that fentanyl overdoses are rising and stay-at-home orders may prevent people from getting help quickly. He knew isolation could result in more overdoses.

“I think that’s happened, and whether it’s more or less than I would have expected, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s frustrating to be able to forecast something as a problem, do everything you can to prevent it as a problem, but it’s absolutely a case of competing priorities.”

Good data is difficult to get on the homeless population because hospitals and death certificates don’t track housing status, says Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco.

She was hesitant to draw conclusions about how the pandemic has affected homeless people overall but said “this may be an example where being outside and unsheltered, just in terms of COVID, maybe let people be at lower risk. But again, part of that is that we just don’t really know.”

New York City has reported more than 1,400 infections and 104 deaths among homeless residents out of more than 226,000 positive cases and 19,000 deaths. Roughly 60,000 people live in shelters, unlike in West Coast cities where many more are unsheltered.

But because New York’s shelters have more children than the general population, when deaths are adjusted for age, the mortality rate for homeless people is 67% higher than for the overall population, said Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless.

“That’s extraordinarily high, in our opinion,” she said.

While advocates push for private hotel rooms for homeless people, a massive 1,200-person shelter at San Diego’s convention centre is showing it’s possible to keep the case count low by strictly adhering to 6-foot (2-metre) spacing, frequent cleaning and mask-wearing.

“We have a team of firefighters that walk the floors to put the cots back where they’re supposed to be,” said fire Deputy Chief Chris Heiser, who is incident commander for the shelter.

He estimates about 3,000 people have come through. And of more than 6,000 COVID-19 tests administered, 18 so far have been positive. San Diego County has reported more than 200 positive cases and no deaths among its nearly 8,000 homeless people.

READ MORE: To get the latest news on Vancouver Island, B.C., Canada and the world delivered to your inbox daily, click here.

Richard Scott, who is in his mid-50s, moved to the convention centre about three months ago after his roommate, who is medically fragile, told him that he could either stay home and not work or leave. Since then, Scott has slept on a cot alongside about 500 men in a cavernous room with high ceilings and a big floor.

Sometimes there’s a theft or disruptive person, but overall Scott calls it a safe place to stay.

“We wash our hands 20 times a day — well some of us — and we get our temperatures checked every day, and they’ve been real strict about that, too,” Scott said. “I’m so happy being here; it’s a blessing.”

Virginia McShane, 63, sleeps in a separate part of the centre. She arrived in April after she could no longer afford a $25-a-night hostel.

“We’ve got a back entrance and a front entrance, and that keeps the air circulating pretty good, so I think that’s why all of us haven’t come down with the coronavirus,” she said.

The rates at which homeless people have tested positive for COVID-19 are all over the place, says Barbara DiPietro, senior policy director for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the issue.

Surveillance testing of more than 10,000 people at shelters and encampments nationwide has resulted in a rate just over 8%. But DiPietro says over 200 testing events of homeless residents in five cities showed rates ranging from 0 to 66%.

“So this is a wildly variant, moving target depending on who and how and when you test,” she said.

Janie Har, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter 

CoronavirusHealthUSA

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The City of Williams Lake and Cariboo Regional District are conducting a housing needs survey for Williams Lake and area. Before this new affordable housing complex on First Avenue North opened in Williams Lake in 2019, it already had a waiting list. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Housing needs survey for Williams Lake and area launched

City of Williams Lake and Cariboo Regional District survey closes on Nov. 20, 2020

This Google Maps screenshot shows the Highway 97 intersection at Juniper Road that is being deactivated in South Quesnel. (Google Maps screenshot)
Juniper Road intersection being deactivated in South Quesnel

Traffic can no longer enter or exit Highway 97 at Juniper Road in a move to improve road safety

Carey and Angela Price announced the birth of their third child on Monday, named Lincoln. (Photo submitted)
Canadiens’ Carey Price, wife Angela, announce birth of baby boy Lincoln

Prior to Monday’s announcement, Carey and Angela had two daughters: Liv, 4, and Millie, 1

Williams Lake RCMP are hoping to speak with Amber Wuetz. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake RCMP concerned for missing woman’s well-being

Amber Wuetz was last seen in Williams Lake

FILE – Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the latest update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province during a press conference in the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. shatters COVID-19 records with 817 weekend cases; masks now expected indoors

Three people have died over the past three reporting periods

Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Ontario’s overly cautious approach to COVID-19 testing is endangering lives and hindering efforts to rein in soaring infections that are ravaging long-term care facilities, filling ICU beds and lurking silently in communities, say critics alarmed by the province’s admission that labs can handle four times the number of tests they receive. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. limits events in private homes to household, plus ‘safe six’ amid COVID-19 surge

Henry issued a public health order limiting private gatherings to one household, plus a group of ‘safe six’ only

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson speaks during a drive-in car rally campaign stop at a tour bus operator, in Delta, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Andrew Wilkinson stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader

Will stay on until the next party leader is chosen

VicPD and B.C. Conservation Officer Service teamed up to free two bucks who were entangled in a fishing net and dragging a wheelbarrow sized piece of driftwood behind them. (VicPD)
VIDEO: Police, B.C. Conservation help two bucks caught in one fishing net

Bucks were also dragging a wheelbarrow sized piece of driftwood behind them

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A heavy police presence was spotted in Lumby, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (Facebook)
Police situation leads to ‘hold and secure’ at North Okanagan school

Police call for social media blackout in ongoing incident

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

École de l’Anse-au-sable. (Google Maps)
COVID-19 outbreak forces closure of Kelowna school

The outbreak is the first within B.C.’s school system since classes resumed back in September

Most Read