Homelessness in the time of COVID-19

Los Angeles Panorama, Photo by Devarrick Turner

By Lilian Gonzalez

Homelessness a growing problem in Los Angeles County, more than 400,000 people were counted as homeless from January 2017 to August 2020, according to Neighborhood Data for Social Change (NDSC). From January to August of this year, since the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened and millions of people have found themselves unemployed, over 108,000 were homeless, NDSC data shows.

Nonprofit organizations which help the homeless, like Midnight Mission which has three facilities in Southern California (Los Angeles, Orange County, and South Bay), are a safety net for people with no place to live and who lack basic needs like food and hygiene essentials. The Midnight Mission located in the heart of Skid Row is known for its high impact homeless outreach.

According to Brenda Wiewel, Director of the University of Southern California Homelessness Initiative, “The main thing that has to happen is we have to build more housing. Because the key to homelessness is the fact that we don’t have affordable housing.”

During the pandemic, homeless individuals became especially vulnerable to contract coronavirus because of living on the street. The city of Los Angeles increased the number of resources available to homeless individuals, like rec centers and similar facilities, said Wiewel. The city put 4,000 homeless people in hotels, she continued. These emergency efforts to house the homeless were part of city collaboration with the state known as Project Roomkey.

The Midnight Mission is helping the Santa Ana and Orange County areas. Volunteer Manager in the Los Angeles Midnight Mission facility, Andrew Linares said “We opened up a facility over there that helps house 150 individuals that are currently on the streets of Orange County.” He continued, “So we pretty much try to make sure that we are finding everyone the necessary help that they need just to be able to get back on their feet. And it starts with just the necessities.”

They assist homeless individuals needing treatment for drugs and alcohol. They also provide assistance with housing to get them off the streets.

Linares addressed that if a family is close to the verge of being on the street, the Midnight Mission moves them to their Family Living Program, which was started in 1995.

Linares also spoke from personal experience as a Midnight Mission Healthy Living Program alum. “I too was on the street with a drug and alcohol problem, which is not the case for a lot of people. For most people, it’s case by case. But for me, it was drugs and alcohol. He continued, “eventually, I ended up coming into the mission Healthy Living program and completed the program successfully,” he said.

In April 2018, Linares came to the Midnight Mission to start working for the organization.

“The purpose is to be able to help our community and become self-sufficient by obtaining the most necessary basic necessities that they need, such as three meals a day, a place to shower bed to sleep and hygiene items.” Linares continued, “I know firsthand experience, what they have gone through, what they’re going through, and what they need. And so I have that opportunity to connect with them. And give them help on a much more deeper level,” he said.

The Midnight Mission works with different homeless individuals who share a common problem, which is suffering from homelessness. “Just the same way that I did and the only difference is that I’ve moved forward and got myself back on the seat through the help of the organization, and recovery programs,” he said.

Before the pandemic hit, homeless individuals would have access to get smaller items like a cup of water from fast food restaurants, have access to restrooms, or get food from individuals in the neighborhood. According to Linares, the homeless community has lost all those opportunities when the city announced the stay at home order.

“Now, there’s the other problem that these individuals that are on our streets, our homeless community, don’t have a safer at home opportunity.” He continued, “Their home is the streets so they’re not really having the same opportunities that you and I can have to isolate and protect themselves, especially those that are of the ages 65 and up or those that have health conditions that can definitely take a toll on them with this virus,” he said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 43,000 homeless people are unsheltered in Los Angeles, California, according to the Neighborhood Data for Social Change (NDSC) from the USC Price Center for Social Innovation.

According to the dataset from USC Price Center for Social Innovation, the top five neighborhoods with the highest number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County include Santa Clarita, Palmdale, Koreatown, Pomona and Torrance with over 1,300 homeless individuals.

The neighborhoods in Los Angeles County with the least homeless population include Whittier Narrows, Veterans Administration, Vernon, Universal City and Unincorporated Catalina Island.

Based on USC Price Center’s dataset, homelessness is geographically spread in Los Angeles County — Santa Clarita and Palmdale, located in north Los Angeles; Koreatown located west of Downtown LA; Pomona, located in Pomona Valley and Torrance, located in the South Bay Region.

Although there are neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area with a low number of homeless individuals, homelessness has slowly and consistently increased from 2017–20.

Credit: USC Price Center for Social Innovation

Based on the USC Price Center’s dataset, the numbers of unsheltered and sheltered homeless individuals surged 11% — to roughly 54,000 from about 49,000 — in the last four years.

In 2017, 26% of homeless individuals were sheltered, and 74% of homeless individuals were unsheltered.

The data also shows that in 2020, sheltered homelessness decreased by 7%, and unsheltered homelessness increased by 6%.

The infographic below shows the differences between the sheltered homeless population and the unsheltered homeless population.

When collecting data on sheltered versus unsheltered homeless individuals, there is a point-in-time count (PIT). The Point-in-Time Count is an annual count on sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals “experiencing homelessness on a single night in January,” according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some facilities, like The Midnight Mission, also like to keep count on their residents. “For us to be able to try to keep count of everyone in Skid Row would be kind of impossible, but we do our best to try to keep some form of count,” Linares said.

The count initiates when individuals come into their facility and receive their meals. “We range from 600 to 1000 individuals a day, who line up at our front at our front door to receive one of the meals, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner,” Linares said.

The Midnight Mission continues to do their best in maintaining the safety of their residents and guests. “Our main focus is to help our community in making sure that we are taking the right protocols… [we] [are] making sure that everyone is following it every single day,” Linares said.

“One of the struggles that a lot of the community members in Skid Row are facing is that either, they don’t have the resources that they were able to get before outside of Skid Row. And also that they’re not able to self isolate so that they can protect themselves a little better,” Linares said.

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Midnight Mission has made sure to set strict protocols.

According to Linares, the staff are tested every two weeks and residents are tested every week. “In general everyone is expected to have a mask worn properly covering your nose to your chin and fitting properly around your mouth area, washing your hands for 20 seconds every hour, sanitizing and cleaning your surfaces every hour as well. These are the protocols that we have set in place in the very beginning. And it has done us very well,” he said.

The Midnight Mission has only had three confirmed cases of COVID-19. They continue to take the appropriate procedures by self isolating those infected by COVID-19 and those at risk.

The Los Angeles Housing Service Authority (LAHSA) has been helping those individuals that are most at risk to get into the Room Key Project, a joint initiative to secure hotel and motel rooms for disadvantaged homeless individuals.

“Their main purpose right now is to try to get them affordable housing and secure their own place. And they’ve helped out a lot of the members of the community here, by getting them into those dream key projects and then finding them housing. But you still get a lot of individuals that, either came from another state or have been here and aren’t quite ready.” Linares continued, “so health becomes challenging, but again, it’s very difficult for us to be able to determine that for every single individual we try our best,” he said.

The Midnight Mission is not the only organization serving the homeless community.

People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), is the largest statewide nonprofit health organization that also strives to end homelessness by “building affordable housing and providing supportive services throughout California.”

PATH serves 140 cities in 6 regions — Greater Los Angeles, Santa Barbara/Central Coast, Greater San Diego, San Jose/Bay Area, and Orange County.

According to a PATH spokesperson, “The homelessness crisis is particularly acute in California, due to the high cost of living and low supply of affordable housing. On any given night, over 150,000 people experience homelessness across the state,” they said.

PATH continues to identify communities with the greatest need and works to partner with those cities and/or counties to find solutions to address homelessness. “PATH moves in 23 people per week… builds and operates affordable rental homes paired with on-site services that support residents…[and] operates nine interim housing sites across the state totaling over 850 beds,” according to the PATH website.

“Unfortunately, many unhoused people still go without shelter for a variety of reasons, including capacity, suitability, and sometimes general unawareness of the nearby options for available shelter. For example, more than 14,000 children in California are unhoused, and unfortunately, not all shelters have the resources to accommodate children and families alongside individuals,” PATH Spokesperson said.

In 2018, nearly 1,000 people died on Los Angeles County streets, according to PATH spokesperson. “Unhoused people are at particular risk for contracting an airborne virus. Many already lacked access to quality healthcare and have several risk factors that make COVID-19 more dangerous,” they said.

Organizations like PATH and the Midnight mission are working tirelessly to end homelessness for individuals, families and communities.

“We do this by building affordable housing and providing supportive services throughout California,” PATH spokesperson said.

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