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Officials Across The U.S. Scramble To Protect Homeless Population From Coronavirus


Health officials in San Francisco say that 70 people in the city's largest homeless shelter there have tested positive for coronavirus. Officials have been warning for weeks that the nation's half a million homeless people may be particularly vulnerable to the growing pandemic. We're joined now by NPR's Adrian Florido. Thanks very much for being with us, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us about the situation in San Francisco, please.

FLORIDO: Well, this outbreak happened at a homeless shelter called MSC South. Last weekend, two people there tested positive for COVID-19. They were quarantined. Officials started testing everyone else at the shelter and yesterday said that 70 out of the 144 people they tested had tested positive. This is Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco's public health director.


GRANT COLFAX: We are very concerned about the health of the people at MSC South. Many of them have chronic health conditions and are vulnerable to getting very sick or even dying from coronavirus. We are doing everything we can for them and to reduce the size of the outbreak.

FLORIDO: He said the city is now turning this shelter into a recovery center for people who tested positive and relocating everyone else.

SIMON: But where, Adrian? I mean, that's the problem you begin with. And if they go to other shelters, isn't there a risk of it continuing to happen because people are in such close quarters?

FLORIDO: Right. Well, they're being relocated to hotel rooms that the city leased so that they can self-isolate because you're right, Scott, that is a risk of these congregate shelters. And that's also the challenge, you know, in San Francisco, but also across California and the nation. California has 150,000 homeless people. Officials don't want them on the street during this crisis because they sometimes sleep in crowded spaces, often don't have access to soap and water. And so in the last few weeks, officials have been scrambling to find places to house people.

SIMON: Where do they come up with?

FLORIDO: Well, the best solution they've found are hotel rooms. As we know, you know, no one is really traveling right now, so hotels are empty. Mayors across California and in other states have been trying to strike deals with hotel owners so that homeless people have somewhere to shelter in place or to self-isolate.

In California, this process is going slower than officials wanted. San Francisco has about a thousand hotel rooms secured so far. Here in Los Angeles, where I am, the number's about the same, about a thousand rooms, but the city has 36,000 homeless people.

A less ideal option are emergency shelters. Los Angeles has converted dozens of community centers into temporary homeless shelters with nurses on-site and beds spaced 6 feet apart. But, again, the city is only expecting a few thousand extra beds - not nearly enough for all the people who need a place to stay.

SIMON: Adrian, given the outbreak at the shelter in San Francisco, are officials reassessing whether putting people in shelters is still a good idea?

FLORIDO: So I asked the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, that question yesterday. He said in many cases, these shelters are being used to make bad situations a little bit better - right? - to spread out people from other shelters that might be crowded or to house people living in the even more crowded conditions on the streets. And he said that ultimately, he is following guidance of health officials on this. Listen to what he said.

ERIC GARCETTI: By having folks checked for temperatures twice a day, of course before they come in, by having medical personnel right there where they are living, I think all of us still remain convinced that it's safer to have eyes-on medical assistance, proper spacing, food, PPE and all of that in those congregate shelters that we've set up.

FLORIDO: It's a tough balance, Scott, that officials know they have to get right because there is a lot at stake.

SIMON: NPR's Adrian Florido, thanks so much for being with us.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.