Orange County officials are gearing up to house homeless residents through a combination of tents and trailers throughout the region to help thin the shelter population in order to curb the anticipated spike of the novel coronavirus. 


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Trailers will be used for isolation and quarantine and distributed between five cities — of which County officials have only publicly named Anaheim and Santa Ana. The Joplin Youth Center, a former juvenile detention center, is slated to be reopened for elderly and immunocompromised homeless people. 

Officials in Tustin, Laguna Beach and Costa Mesa have all asked for trailers from the county as well.

County officials are also eying hotel and motel rooms for elderly and immunocompromised homeless people. 

“Everything’s really fluid right now. I know they’re coming in and the County’s planning on using motels, tents and then we’re still using recuperative. So, knock on wood, it hasn’t really broke yet, so we’re just kind of getting prepared. That’s basically all we know is that we’re really scaling up logistically and the county’s trying to figure out where they might put the tents,” said Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon. 

The foundation is a nonprofit homeless services provider, who runs the La Mesa shelter in Anaheim and will be running the tents throughout the county. 

Orange County Health Care Agency Director, Richard Sanchez, told County Supervisors Tuesday that he expects the surge in virus cases sometime later this month. 

“It’s probably going to be in two or three weeks and probably into early May as well,” Sanchez said at the Tuesday meeting board meeting. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 606 known cases, including 10 deaths from the virus. 

And two staff members at 224-person the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Anaheim tested positive for the virus. 

The cases prompted the testing of 34 people living at the shelter who came into contact with the two staffers. None of those people tested have the virus, according to a statement on Anaheim’s “While testing of the 34 residents was recommended because of their potential exposure to the staff members, the shelter’s remaining 172 residents were offered testing and opted not to because of minimal exposure risk and because they showed no signs or symptoms,” reads the statement.

“No one at the shelter, residents or staff, are showing any signs or symptoms.”

Meanwhile, Leon said Illumination Foundation staff are preparing for the expected spike in cases. 

“I think we’re prepared as we can be, and now I’ve never been in a situation where you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Leon said. “We’ve been naive to think that people aren’t going to get the virus.” 

Leon said he expects the tents to be operational before the expected countywide spike in virus cases. 

David Souleles, Orange County’s director of public health services, said the goal is to get symptomatic people and the elderly out of the shelters. And the moves will help thin out the shelters to increase physical distancing capabilities, he

“It’s kind of a herculean lift to get this all done,” Souleles said in a Tuesday interview. “[The county is] prioritizing the highest risk situation right now, which would be symptomatic

Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who spearheaded the 2018 federal lawsuit against the County and cities over homeless policies, said the incoming tents aren’t ideal and single-person tents should be used because the set up would help keep distance between people and stop the virus from spreading. 

“In the grand scheme of everything I’ve read and all the medical professionals I’ve talked to, it seems the best way to do it is through individual tents,” Weitzman said. 

Hotel and motel rooms would be ideal because that option would get homeless people from crowded shelter conditions and into isolated rooms, she said. 

“It is great that the County is taking some steps — that the County does seem to recognize that this is a serious problem that can’t wait any longer,” Weitzman said. 

County officials on Tuesday said Anaheim will get 39 trailers while another 39 go to Santa Ana. 

Santa Ana will use 22 of the trailers while the other 17 trailers will go to three unnamed cities. Anaheim will use 30 trailers at two separate homeless shelters and store the other nine at the convention center to send to other shelters or cities. 

Officials were still forming the plan to roll out the tents and where the other trailers will go as of Wednesday. 

“This plan is still in process, and we are proactively working on finalizing these logistics. Specific details will be shared throughout the process as they become available,” OC emergency operations center staff said in a Wednesday email. 

Tustin city spokeswoman Stephanie Najera said officials requested five trailers for its homeless shelter, but haven’t heard a response from the County as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Laguna Beach senior analyst Jeremy Frimond said the city requested two trailers, but didn’t know if it will get both.

Frimond, who works in the city manager’s office, said Costa Mesa requested trailers also.

All three of the cities have homeless shelters.

Leon said the tents can help thin out some of the shelter beds so people can practice the CDC-recommended six-foot physical distance from others. 

“I think what’s going to happen now is they’re looking at getting shelters big enough to where we can really social distance — far past the six foot and hopefully relieve some of the other shelters so they can create more space there,” Leon said. 

He said many of the shelters were able to get ahead by closing down certain services early. 

“The really good thing about the shelters is they all closed pretty quick to traffic and letting people roam in and out. I think that’s going to pay dividends. That doesn’t mean that it (the virus) couldn’t go through there like a wildfire, but at least they’re not exposed to 20 or 30 people,” Leon said. 

Leon said he expects more details on the tent locations by Friday or early next week. 

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

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