FORT BRAGG, 2/28/20 — As of of Friday, there was not a single case where COVID-19 is suspected in a homeless person in Mendocino County, said Mendocino County Health and Human Services Director Tammy Moss-Chandler.
The fact of a significant population of unhoused people in Mendocino County has long been a problem, but the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic to North Coast has highlighted once more the indignity and danger of leaving so many unhoused. Given that many have no method of sheltering to begin with, the shelter-in-place order issued by the County has specifically exempted local houseless people from the shelter-in-place, asking them instead to, “find shelter and government agencies to provide it.” And public officials across the state have warned California’s large homeless population could be more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, and spreading the disease, because they are forced to live in unsheltered and often unhygienic conditions.
Here in Mendocino local non-profits are stepping up in whatever ways they can to try to help unhoused people shelter as best they can and protect the public health.
In Fort Bragg, the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center had placed someone in quarantine in a motel room this week, following guidelines designed to protect the community. That case was investigated and 100 percent determined to not be COVID-19.
As streets have cleared of cars and people, and many businesses have shuttered, there is one crowd of people who have few options to shelter in place. For the homeless, social distancing and handwashing are rare luxuries. And it’s only gotten worse with parks closed and bathrooms locked everywhere. Hundreds live on the streets of Mendocino County all day, some using one of the two county shelters for sleeping and some for daytime use, but facilities are limited. And many people can’t get off the streets if they want to shelter in place.
Mendocino County health authorities, who moved with speed and efficiency to close most of the county’s businesses, performances, sit down restaurants, and tourist visits in an incredibly short window of time have appeared to lag on the homeless issue.
Much is happening behind the scenes, with the county’s plan to deal with the homeless set to be released at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. For example, the county was able to rush the permitting process so that Building Bridges, the Ukiah shelter, was able to open up enough of its building for people to shelter in place there during the day, said Director Moss-Chandler, who will present plans for the homeless issue during the discussion item on all the county is doing about COVID-19. In normal times, homeless shelters are only set up for sleeping, with limited day use. There is a need to also find a way for more of the coast’s homeless to shelter in place during the day. Some have opportunities to do so currently in Fort Bragg, including helpers and those in transitional housing, but more is needed. Chandler hopes the coastal community can come together to find a solution..
Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center board member Carole White said using more motel rooms makes the most sense, although there would be issues staffing such day shelters during the current crisis.
The reason the homeless issue has not been out front seemed to emerge as this reporter tried to track down that report of whether the Hospitality Center was using a motel room to quarantine a client: The homeless are much too easy to target in these terrifying times. Quarantine is supposed to be used as a precaution, not as an indicator that someone actually has coronavirus — but advocates fear that if it is used it could result in the homeless being scapegoated.
The person in Fort Bragg quarantine is still being cared for, but was determined not to have COVID-19.
“As a precaution, the Hospitality Center [MCHC] did place one person from transitional housing into a motel room after becoming ill, but was not confirmed to have Covid-19. Meals and check-ins are being provided by MCHC staff,” said White.
Quarantine is not uncommon in these times. During recent reporting on this criss this reporter has located many people in self-quarantine, including recent foreign travelers and people who simply feel sick. In many cases there are no specific requirements for public reporting of quarantine.
Both of Mendocino County’s homeless shelters plan to continue to operate through the crisis, each announcing screening and other safety measures and finding new ways to provide hand washing and cleaning.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom was quoted by the Associated Press stating that 60,000 homeless could end up infected, out of the more than 150,000 homeless people. Newsom has launched a program to take over 50,000 motel rooms for the homeless, with more than 4000 rooms now occupied statewide, according to reports in the state media. Newsom has said that after the crisis, distressed hotels might be purchased as permanent housing for the homeless, the stories say.
Moss-Chandler said the county has been working with the shelters on preparing for the arrival of the issue since early March, before everything changed. Motel rooms are now available for homeless quarantine, she said. She said using even more rooms to give the homeless a place to shelter in place is being considered in the plans. She hopes that some of the solutions extend to the long term to help solve the homeless issue after the crisis has passed, as Newsom had said.
The Fort Bragg area’s roughly 200 homeless people are served primarily by the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center, the non profit organization which operates several homeless programs including the Hospitality House, with two dozen beds that are constantly full. Since last fall it has also operated the emergency weather shelter (EWS) nightly, where people can come each night to sign in. The shelter has been rotated among the members of Fort Bragg’s faith community. The EWS serves a dozen to two dozen people nightly, with the season to end on April 7. Chandler said the EWS is the kind of effort needed to give homeless people a place to shelter.
The Hospitality Center has newly added a canopy tent out back of their Hospitality House year round shelter to separate the House guests from outside guests so they can continue to provide meals to those who need it, but keep them from entering the house where people are sheltering in place. The Center is screening all clients, have outfitted staff with protective equipment and are hoping to add outdoor hand washing stations.
Hospitality Center Executive Director Carla Harris described plans designed to keep the operation providing services that have become more vital than ever now.
“At this time there are no plans to shut down any essential services and that includes the Hospitality House, Transitional Housing, Specialty Mental Health Services, and Wellness Support Services. The Winter Shelter will remain open until April 7th. We have modified services in compliance with the Shelter in Place order and CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Harris said.
One might ask, how are the sick kept separate right now?
“MCHC is working closely with local healthcare facilities to prevent overwhelming hospitals. If an individual presents with symptoms, they are quickly isolated and MCHC staff is following healthcare protocols. If someone is experiencing extreme symptoms they are sent directly to the hospital for further care,” said Harris.
“If someone is presenting with mild symptoms we are quickly isolating them, and following through with contacting healthcare providers. Isolating them means that we are putting them in a local motel room. My hope is that the COVID-19 funding will cover this.”
Continued funding needs for any sick people will be addressed by the county and the center as the fast-changing situation continues.
“What was true yesterday in all this, may not be true today,” said Harris.
There are always people living outside the system that fall between the cracks.
A 39-year-old homeless woman, coughing and red faced, sat outside Fort Bragg Town Hall on March 24 told this reporter she had been refused service for coughing by the Hospitality Center’s emergency winter shelter. She was next to a homeless man, who is also currently not involved in Hospitality Center services. She chose to walk away rather than be evaluated, which could have led to a hotel room for her. Privacy laws protect her and made it impossible to officially verify her story.
“You can’t force a person to go to a hotel room or even the emergency room,” said Fort Bragg City Councilman Bernie Norvell when told about the incident.
Hotel rooms being available is not the same thing as having them occupied by people sheltering in place. Any solutions must consider that many homeless people do not partake in services offered.
“Short of getting every individual a motel room, I think they (MCHC) are doing all they can,” said Norvell, who has often volunteered nights at the emergency weather shelter.
“I wish there is more we were doing right now. I think in this crisis almost everything we are all going to learn will be in hindsight,” said Norvell.
Even having a place to shelter indoors may not always work. Norvell says many homeless just love the great outdoors.
“If the weather looks like it’s going to be good they might just be ‘I’m out of here’ and head outdoors.
Outside hand washing stations is a current priority so everybody can stay as clean as possible. Health experts say hand washing for at least 20 seconds is vital during this crisis. Norvell said the city has acquired a hand washing station and bathroom to put in the city hall parking lot.
“It will stay there as long as it doesn’t become a problem,” Norvell said.
Harrris is seeking two hand washing stations in a request through the county, one to be used outdoors at the Hospitality House and the other wherever the emergency weather shelter is located
Lack of protective equipment and hand sanitizer has been another issue, one suffered by the entire health care system, nationwide. Norvell went to the painters in town to help search for masks, but they had already given all theirs to other needy health professionals. He said the city was unable to get enough masks for a while. Eventually, the police chief got a supply through the county office of emergency services, Norvell said.
“We have a supply order into the county, however, the county is on backorder due to local and national shortages,” Harris said. “Mendocino Coast Clinics provided us with reusable filtering masks, disposable masks, and hand sanitizers. The County provided us with very limited additional supplies until the bulk order can be filled.”
Full disclosure: this reporter joined the Hospitality Center winter shelter team for a short time before its operation was extended. I saw dedicated front line people coming up with creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Staff dealt with serious problems suffered by many elderly homeless people. Some of these were life and death situations, at least from my perspective. Fort Bragg’s churches offered their buildings night-after-night while members and pastors provided support, supplies, muscles and often homemade hot food.
As most people from Fort Bragg already know, the Hospitality Center has been controversial. A special 2015 vote was unsuccessfully held to try to ban the Hospitality Center from moving into The Old Coast Hotel (which would have banned non profits from the downtown business area). Locals were virtually at each other’s throats. Concerns were often valid. But times have changed radically, both in the center leadership and staff and with this worldwide crisis. The Old Coast Hotel has become an office complex for the staff. And the homeless issue has suddenly gotten much bigger than any one agency.
“This [homeless responsibility] issue is not a government mandate for any single entity to take responsibility for. This has typically been a societal issue and one where we have failed,” Moss-Chandler said.
What can people do to help?
“What we could use is support in the way of food, already cooked or raw ingredients, produce. Supplies of all kinds including laundry soap, bleach, hand soap, lotion, shampoo, toothpaste, twin or double size sheets and blankets,” said White. “Please call 707-961-1150 to let the House staff know you will be bringing a donation to 237 North McPherson Street. We ask that you put your donations on the porch with your name and contact info (so we can thank you), ring the bell, and then leave the area. We are cleaning all products we receive,” White said.
The Hospitality Center currently works with Fort Bragg Street Medicine to provide regular preventative care and treatment. “They were just here this morning, providing services to clients, sheltered and the unsheltered,” said Harris on Thursday. Fort Bragg Street Medicine was launched in 2018 by Coast Clinics, Hospitality Center and Adventist Health. The intent of the Street Medicine program is to screen and refer for medical and mental health issues, provide health education, reduce emergency room visits and help homeless people overcome the barriers that make it difficult to access health care resources and services.
What’s happening in Ukiah?
Victoria Kelly, CEO of Redwood Community Services in Ukiah which runs Ukiah’s homeless shelter, Building Bridges, has announced The Homeless Resource Center and shelter will remain open to guests; “while following guidelines and will be providing handwashing stations and increased sanitization. Any guests who enter our shelter will be screened for symptoms before entering the premises,” she wrote in a letter to local media.
Sarah Reith reporter at KZYX radio, which sometimes collaborates with The Mendocino Voice, reported how at Building Bridges, the homeless resource center in Ukiah, distancing protocols were in place for the overnight shelter; hand-washing stations were conspicuous and disinfecting was going on constantly. She reported how the homeless could not shelter in place and were in fact driven closer together by their circumstances.
“Everyone is hurting and scared right now. Including the unsheltered and those in temporary shelter. Everyone is trying hard to understand this new world. Kindness goes a long way,” said White.