Aly: To Avoid Overwhelming Local Hospitals, Stop Overcrowding Homeless Shelters

Vulnerable people must be diverted from overcrowded shelters before they fall to the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control provided guidance for homeless shelters: “In general sleeping areas (for those who are not experiencing respiratory symptoms), ensure that beds/mats are at least 6 feet apart, and request that all clients sleep head-to-toe.”

Orange County has documented cases of community spread of COVID-19. Yet, the County of Orange has ignored CDC guidance by not allowing for six feet of space between individuals at its two shelters, Bridges in Anaheim and The Courtyard in Santa Ana.

The Courtyard already has dangerously overcrowded conditions. When pressed, Orange County Public Works defended setting occupancy limits of 450 persons at The Courtyard. In a sworn declaration, Public Works defended its designation of The Courtyard as an “organized camp” based on the notion that it provides “activities” and lacks insulation. An “organized camp,” per Section 450 of the California Building Code, is “a site with programs and facilities established for the primary purpose of providing an outdoor group living experience with social, spiritual, educational or recreational objectives, for five days or more during one or more seasons of the year.” According to Public Works, the Courtyard emergency shelter purportedly fits the definition of an “organized camp” because: “Although the space occupied is covered, the area is open; it is not enclosed on most sides, thereby providing a partially sheltered but still outdoor living experience. Social, spiritual, educational, medical, and recreational services are also available to the occupants.”

Public Works relied on the wrong section of the California Building Code to set occupancy limits at The Courtyard. Table 1004.1.1 of the California Building Code provides that the “Maximum Floor Area Allowances Per Occupant” of “Institutional… Sleeping areas,” such as a shelter, permits one occupant for 120 feet of occupiable space. The Courtyard would require fifty-four thousand (54,000) square feet of space for a maximum occupancy of 450 people. But the Courtyard has crowded over 400 people in less than a quarter of that space.

The County of Orange has an incentive to overcrowd its shelters. Under federal law established by the Ninth Circuit in Martin v Boise, cities and the County may enforce anti-camping ordinances if they offer a shelter bed as an alternative. Deeming a bus terminal an emergency shelter, for law enforcement purposes, allows the County to claim that it provides emergency shelter to 400 people. Deeming The Courtyard a recreational camp, for Building Code purposes, allows the County to load the shelter with four times more than under the proper “Institutional” designation.

To avoid the grave risk to the community, the County of Orange must immediately reduce the occupancy at its shelters in line with state law and CDC guidance. Court closures may prevent advocates from bringing legal action against the County of Orange to force the Board of Supervisors to follow state law and federal recommendations. However, the publication of this urgent request will preserve for posterity that the County of Orange had a choice to act responsibly to save lives. We anxiously await that decision.

The County of Orange must take immuno-compromised and elderly people out of shelters and place them in motels or other locations right now. Save vulnerable lives from an outbreak predicted to infect half of the global population.

Volunteers with Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition stand ready to mobilize food, transportation, and other forms of assistance to county-established programs at motels.

Mohammed Aly is a lawyer and executive director of Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition. Please contact him at alym@ocpoverty.com with suggestions or support.

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