Orange County officials are scrambling to craft a plan to combat the novel coronavirus at its main walk-in homeless shelter, where 450 people are living in tight quarters, a converted Santa Ana bus terminal that’s struggling to keep people separated from each other. 

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Yet as of Thursday afternoon, there wasn’t much clarity on options.

There is currently no plan to move elderly and sick homeless residents to hotels and motels, like the County did during the 2018 Santa Ana Riverbed evictions. 

“That would help, but we’re in Orange County, baby,” said Courtyard operator Doris Starling. “I’ve been doing this for 33 years and this is probably the worst I’ve seen it.”  

OC Emergency Operations Center spokeswoman Carrie Braun, said there is a dedicated team of county officials at the EOC considering all options for the homeless, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s suggestion that vulnerable homeless people be housed in isolated motel and hotel rooms.     

“That is absolutely part of what that shelter branch is looking at,” Braun said Thursday.”Especially for those who are immunocompromised,”

Paul Leon, CEO of the Illumination Foundation, said shelters are going to get hit hard by the virus. 

“There is no good plan. I just came down from LA. I don’t believe anybody has a great plan for this,” Leon said.

The nonprofit foundation runs homeless shelters in LA and OC. 

Leon said the OC Health Care Agency has been responsive to potential coronavirus cases in the foundation’s shelters, but there’s still not a solid plan to move people. 

“It hit so fast, and they’re so overwhelmed on all counts — like all counties are. A lot of the stuff is you kind of have to do common sense wise is just kind of what you do at home,” Leon said about efforts to combat the virus outbreak.  

Starling said she’s never seen a situation like this. 

“I’ve been involved in quite a few really serious situations in America, but this is the most serious we’ve had. But I think we can get through it if we do what medical professionals tell us to do,” Starling said.

She said she’s trying her best to maintain the CDC-recommended six-foot separation from people in the shelter, but it’s tough because the shelter is already packed in a tight space. 

“I’m going to be putting up another tent for people who aren’t feeling well and can be isolated will be moving there. And then I’ll be trying to distance people as best I can,” Starling said. 

Meanwhile, the County is offering 18 beds for some of the seniors living at the Courtyard shelter. 

Starling said at least half of the people sleeping there are seniors.  

Lawyer and homeless advocate, Mohammed Aly, said everyone should be worried about the lack of a County plan. 

“Time is running out. There is documented community spread of COVID-19,” Aly said. “There are probably many more cases that we’re not aware of because we’re not doing enough testing. The chances are very real that if someone carrying the virus goes into [a county homeless shelter] everyone at these shelters might get it.”

The CDC issued guidelines for homeless shelters earlier this month, calling for a constant communication network of health care providers and isolating people who are experiencing respiratory issues, which the virus causes. It also calls on transporting people with the virus symptoms to local hospitals.  

“This puts the entire community at risk. If one person at the courtyard carries COVID-19, the entire shelter is likely to be infected because everyone is in such close quarters. And if all 450 people develop COVID-19, that alone would occupy every single hospital bed at the local hospitals. For the sake of everybody in the community, the County has to act,” Aly said. 

Starling said she’s been trying to keep everything at the Courtyard as clean as possible. 

“What I’ve done is I’ve made sure I have spray bottles and because we’re on cement, I have bleach water and small sponge mops. Everyone is getting one so they can keep their area clean,” Starling said. 

Meanwhile, cities aren’t waiting on guidance or orders from the County. 

Anaheim and its homeless shelter operators — the nonprofits Illumination Foundation and the Salvation Army — have already rolled out plans for the two shelters in the city. 

The operators have stepped up routine cleanings, especially on surfaces that are frequently touched, like door knobs. And both shelters are able to distance people as much as possible and are using cubicle-style barriers to separate beds. 

And Anaheim is watching Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office for any potential executive order relating to homeless shelters. 

On Sunday, Newsom announced he would consider using hotels and public buildings to house homeless people while the virus is spreading, which the World Health Organization classified as a pandemic. 

“We await specifics from the state on this proposal and look to the Governor’s direction on how to best proceed,” reads an Anaheim news release.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio 

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