Lisa Reeve woke up to find the woman lying on the asphalt, outside the Southside Community Center. Only a blanket protected her from the elements.
After being suddenly discharged from Valley House Rehabilitation Center in Santa Clara, which treated her for pneumonia, the woman returned to the South San Jose parking lot where she stayed with other unhoused folks.
Neither her partner nor car were anywhere to be found.
A staff member at LifeMoves, the nonprofit that oversees the parking program, couldn’t secure a motel room. And when her shift ended for the evening, the case worker left her with a blanket to sleep on the ground for the rest of the night.
A few days later, the woman tested positive for Covid-19.
“I can’t understand how she fell through every crack,” Reeve said. “Valley Home kicked her out. LifeMoves left her on the sidewalk for us to find and a bunch of homeless people to help her. I was just mortified. How can people do that?”
The decision to leave her outside amidst a pandemic not only put the woman at risk—it put everyone around her in jeopardy, too. It turned out that when Reeve helped lift her off the ground the next morning with no gloves and no mask, she unknowingly could have exposed herself to the virus as well.
The 57-year-old construction worker, who said she became homeless last August for the first time in her life, has a compromised immune system due to a chronic illness. Yet despite being directly exposed to someone with COVID-19 and having health issues that put her at high risk for complications, Reeve had to fight to get tested.
“I’m tired,” Reeve said, days before she received the results of her own test. “I’m worried for everyone else in the parking lot. Did I infect them? Did I pass it around?”
Though lack of shelter puts them at greater risk of catching the virus, an untold number of the South Bay’s thousands of homeless residents still struggle to get tested.
By late last week, the county Public Health Department had tested just 137 homeless individuals—a small fraction of the county’s growing unhoused population. The most recent bi-annual point-in-time census revealed that 9,706 homeless residents were living in the county last year, with more than 6,000 in San Jose.
Out of the 137 residents assayed for COVID-19, 39 tested positive and are self-isolating in motel rooms obtained by the county.
“Our testing capabilities have been somewhat limited,” county Office of Supportive Housing director Ky Le said. “Definitely, we don’t have the resources to test 9,700 homeless people. … We haven’t finalized that process yet or that plan yet. I think it is a concern and we’re working with our public health officer and our strategy team.”
County officials say they are largely conducting symptom screenings for homeless individuals, especially upon entry into shelters. When a homeless man died of COVID-19 in March, the health department conducted contact tracing to identify the encampment where the man had been living. Sixty people in the same camp were screened for symptoms and nine of them were tested for the new coronavirus, according to a health department spokesperson. All nine tests came back negative.
Shaunn Cartwright—a member of a grassroots coalition called the Unhoused Response Group, which has been handing out “COVID kits” to the homeless—said symptom screening just isn’t enough. In San Francisco, the coronavirus has rapidly spread through homeless shelters, with more than 100 unhoused residents testing positive for COVID-19.
“You can take people’s temperatures, but precautions don’t prevent anything for people who are asymptomatic,” she said. “Nobody wants to be in shelters right now and play Covid-roulette.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo acknowledged the testing shortfalls. As of Monday afternoon, the county health department and private labs have tested 25,575 people in the last few months. With no way to suddenly scale up testing, Liccardo said they need to focus on finding housing for the homeless. Last week, the San Jose City Council approved emergency housing in the form of 80 prefabricated modular units, which will be placed on a plot of city-owned land at Monterey and Bernal roads.
“There’s no question in my mind that we are under-testing among our homeless, particularly given what we know about the spread of the pandemic in other cities with large encampment populations,” he said in a recent interview. “This only adds to the urgency of moving more of our neighbors into motels and building emergency housing as quickly as possible.”
Heather Bucy, LifeMoves’ director of shelter and services for Santa Clara County, confirmed Reeve’s story, but declined to comment on why the nonprofit was unable to secure a motel room for the woman on the night in question.
“The client was able to stay in a staff vehicle until the staff member on site had to leave and security took over,” Bucy said. “We then provided the client with blankets for the rest of the evening. They were able to get into a motel the next day. We are grateful for the work of our staff to assist this unsheltered person that evening.”
Reeve, however, disputes the fact that LifeMoves was involved with obtaining a motel room for the woman. She says that other safe parking residents helped pay for the first night, while advocates paid for the second night.
Meanwhile, LifeMoves was eventually able to test every person availing themselves of the Safe and Supportive Parking program. All results came back negative.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese said he feels the county is living on “borrowed time” when it comes to protecting homeless people from contracting the virus.
“I hope I’m wrong,” he said, “but my fear is that this is a ticking time bomb and people are going to look back and realize it was not smart to screen and test at such low levels if and when what ends up happening is our unhoused population circulates the virus.”
The county supervisor added that the homeless are at just as high of a risk as those living in nursing homes, yet are given much less “attention and care.” Cortese has urged county officials for the last month to increase their efforts to help unhoused residents.
In a March 27 letter to Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith, Cortese asked to deploy paramedics to “establish welfare check-points at all known homeless encampments in Santa Clara County for the purposes of screening, identifying and referring houseless inhabitants of the county to necessary health and welfare services, testing centers, and emergency treatment.” Cortese added: “I think we could have done better by now and we need to do better moving forward.”
On the Front Lines
Over the past six weeks, the Unhoused Response Group has been on the frontlines of the crisis, handing out more than 1,000 Covid-19 kits to the homeless. The drawstring backpacks contain masks, hand sanitizer, snacks, soap and information about COVID-19 translated into English, Vietnamese and Spanish, among other essential items.
This past week, however, the group ran out of hand sanitizer for its upcoming distribution. With public restrooms at parks and other recreational facilities closed, the shortage may leave the county’s unhoused population with little-to-no options for maintaining basic hygiene.
Raymond Ramsey, who was homeless on and off for 10 years before moving into permanent supportive housing at Second Street Studios, has been handing out the kits two to three times a week since the shelter-in-place order went into effect. He said that many people living in encampments lack access to a phone or the internet, leaving them without critical, up-to-date information about the pandemic. “They’re afraid,” he said. “Sometimes we are the first people to notify them about the COVID crisis.”
But even those with phones are struggling to get information as the shelter-in-place mandate has closed businesses and facilities where the homeless previously went to charge their electronic devices. And with city and county meetings moved online amid a regional stay-at-home order, Ramsey says the lack of power has excluded them from waiting for hours on the phone to make a public comment.
“They don’t have access to the legislative process,” he said. “They are the focus of the meeting, but they don’t have an opportunity to speak on their behalf.”
In mid-April, Milpitas City Councilwoman Karina Dominguez became the first local, elected official to accompany the Unhoused Response Group out into the encampments. She said she wanted to gain insight from constituents who live on the streets.
“Our unhoused people consider themselves Milpitians,” she said. “In the interviews, I found out that many of them are scared. They don’t have access to a phone [and] many of them are experiencing what felt like shock and trauma.”
Dominguez said she hopes people understand that COVID-19 exposure among the unhoused puts even housed people at risk. “This is now a public health issue,” she said. “Their public health affects everyone around them. … We share the same community and so it’s critical for us to help them find a place where they can isolate themselves.”