Virus infecting homeless ‘like a storm’

COVID-19 has begun marching through Los Angeles' homeless population in the Skid Row precinct "like a storm".

NBC TV reports that the biggest cluster of coronavirus in Skid Row east of downtown Los Angeles, which contains one of the US's largest homeless populations, has increased 70 per cent in just five days.

On Wednesday last week a shelter specially set up to get homeless people off the street and protect them from coronavirus registered 54 positive cases.

By Monday this week, the number of cases at the Union Rescue Mission had risen to 97.


Among those who tested positive for coronavirus were a chaplain, a frontline worker and a health department worker stationed at the shelter.

At least two people associated with the outbreak at Union Rescue Mission have died.

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on April 18 that the state had procured 15,000 hotel rooms and emergency shelter beds to house the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Union Rescue Mission, Los Angeles' oldest and largest homeless shelter, was set up to house more than 1000 people per night.

It was stocked with hand sanitiser, set up with hand washing stations and signs about social distancing, but that didn't stop infections infiltrating the centre.

"COVID-19 has moved in like a storm, and we've been doing all that we can," the Mission's CEO Reverend Andy Bales told NBC4.

The 61-year-old Reverend, a legend on Skid Row, now runs the Mission from a wheelchair after losing his leg to a flesh-eating disease he picked up working with the homeless.

While other shelters have closed since the pandemic, Reverend Bales has remained determined to keep his open and not let "fear reign".

He converted the mission's gymnasium into a makeshift quarantine zone, ready to receive and isolate any homeless who show signs of being sick.

But despite the precautions, the sudden spike in cases came.

"We started early, getting ready for this to avoid it, and it has just come in like a roaring lion," Rev Bales told NBC4.

Now the LA County Public Health Department is investigating possible outbreaks at 12 more shelters in Los Angeles.

"We will continue to see outbreaks in many of the congregant living sites and among many of the unsheltered people experiencing homelessness," county public health department director Dr Barbara Ferrer said.

The stay-at-home orders issued by Californian authorities belie the fact that tens of thousands of Californians no longer have homes to live in.

Rev Bales told SBS Dateline that the COVID-19 pandemic had collided with the economic downturn in the US economy which had forced more people out of accommodation and onto the streets.

"We've been through typhus and typhoid and Hepatitis A and many other things. But we have never been through a pandemic and a recession at the same time," he said.

"If we say no, we're sending somebody to nowhere and they're two to three times more likely to die on the streets from this pandemic."

Many of the approximately 5000 living in homeless encampments sprawled over Skid Row's 50 city blocks remain untested.

This is despite LA city officials attempts to test them with pop-up sites.

NBC4 reported one empty testing station was around the corner from a queue of hundreds of homeless people with no social distancing.

The crowd was lining up to get meals from one of Skid Row's institutions, the Midnight Mission.

One person told NBC4 many of the homeless were oblivious or turning a blind eye to the pandemic.

"They don't even think people are dying. They don't think people are getting sick, and that's part of mental illness. They don't want to believe the truth," he said.

Originally published as Virus infecting LA homeless 'like a storm'

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