Orange County officials are trying to meet a state goal of 2,300 new homeless shelter beds across OC, to allow people to spread out and reduce the chances of a full-blown outbreak of coronavirus among homeless people that could also impact hospitals.
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The goal is to open three new types of shelter funded by the state, for three groups:
- For homeless people with COVID symptoms, motel and hotel beds with support services at multiple properties leased by the county and funded by state,
- For homeless people without symptoms but who are over 65 years old or vulnerable medically, the former Joplin Youth Center in the Santa Ana Mountains,
- For homeless people on the street who do not have symptoms, additional shelters that may include large “Sprung” structures on the parking lots at county regional parks.
There was no clear timeline as of Thursday for when any of the new shelters would come online. The county has hired the nonprofit Illumination Foundation to run them, and have been preparing Joplin and working on leases for the first motels.
“We are, by the day, getting interest from new motel/hotel operations that want to do business with the county to serve this need. We do appreciate this outreach,” county CEO Frank Kim told supervisors at their public meeting Tuesday.
In a move that could speed up the process, county supervisors on Thursday authorized county Kim to approve emergency contracts related to coronavirus, including motel leases, on his own through the remainder of the emergency.
The Joplin camp will be physically ready soon, Kim said, but homeless people will not be going there until the county has security, food, medical providers and other services in place.
Homeless people are generally more elderly than the overall population and have been sheltered by the hundreds in dense spaces in Orange County. That proximity and older age creates a higher risk of coronavirus spreading if it were to make it into a shelter – and of homeless people dying from it.
An urgent need, according to health experts, is providing shelter options for people currently on the streets, to help slow the virus’ spread.
Among the ongoing concerns were the health risks presented by homeless people suddenly not able to use many public restrooms. In recent days, cities and the county have closed down bathrooms at beaches and parks across Orange County, as part of efforts to discourage people from gathering closely together during the disease outbreak.
A lack of access to clean restrooms creates a greater risk of infectious diseases spreading, according to health experts.
“Without proper sanitation facilities, waste from infected individuals can contaminate a community’s land and water, increasing the risk of infection for other individuals. Proper waste disposal can slow the infection cycle of many disease-causing agents,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
County emergency management officials didn’t respond Thursday to questions about the health concerns when people don’t have restroom access, and what efforts were underway to ensure sanitary restrooms are accessible for people who can’t get into shelters.
Officials were looking into setting up hand washing stations and opening some public restrooms, but the specifics and timing were not clear.
Thousands of homeless people live unsheltered in Orange County, with the county continuing to have far fewer shelter beds than homeless people.
There were signs Thursday that some county staff disagreed with the scale of the state’s 2,300 bed, which state officials apparently have agreed to pay the costs for.
“They had given us an initial number of 2,300 – that is probably a little much,” said Matt Miller, the Orange County’s chief real estate officer, during the supervisors’ special meeting Thursday.
At the same time, Miller said the county was taking “directions” from the state regarding the motel shelters.
“Originally the state was going to enter into these [motel lease] agreements, and they have now ordered us to do so,” Miller told supervisors.
In their action Thursday, the county’s five elected supervisors granted authority to Kim, the county CEO, to respond more quickly to the crisis by signing contracts with motels and other services. Kim has been playing a key role overseeing hour-to-hour developments in the coronavirus response.
One of the approaches under discussion is to buy motels outright and turn them into permanent supportive housing after the coronavirus pandemic is over.
That idea’s had strong support over the last several days from Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who has long been a vocal supporter for permanent supportive housing.
“Is it possible for us to enter a lease option? Because I think we want to think both short term and long term, as I mentioned before,” Bartlett said at Thursday’s meeting. A lease option means renting a property with the option of buying it at the end of the rental.
Kim agreed it’s a good idea.
“That is something that we would consider to be good policy, on a case by case basis, depending on a particular property that we have interest in,” he said in response to Bartlett’s question Thursday.
“In some cases” it would make sense, Kim added. He said he and other staff are awaiting further guidance on it from the state, which is footing the bill for the motel costs.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].