During this crisis, there has been an overwhelming public sentiment of “we’re all in this together as we shelter-in-place.” But this concept of “we” is inherently exclusionary.
Have “we” considered the people who don’t have the privilege of shelter? The people who don’t even know the full extent of this pandemic because they don’t have access to the news or other resources to educate them on the situation? What about the people who are too concerned about their daily survival to consider the impacts of a contagious coronavirus ravaging the rest of the world?
On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order for “all individuals living in the state of California to stay home or at their place of residence” to preserve the public health and safety of all Californians in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. This order was a directive to all Californians. And yet it dismissed upwards of 150,000 people experiencing homelessness, including almost 10,000 of whom live in Santa Clara County.
I was bothered but unsurprised to discover that unsheltered individuals are not included in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of people who are at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Living without consistent access to sufficient shelter, food and transportation would leave anybody at a high risk of illness. This is particularly true for people who may not have the appropriate resources or information regarding prevention of the spread of a contagious virus.
Many experiencing homelessness live in environments where social distancing is unrealistic, such as crowded shelters or encampments. They may not be aware of the face-covering policy and they may not have resources to frequently wash or sanitize their hands. The exclusion of the homeless population in emergency response only further emphasizes the alienation of this significant number of people who are most vulnerable.
The city of San Jose and Santa Clara County have been unclear and inadequate with their implementation of protection for people who are unhoused during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their plans for providing shelter to those who need it most make impressive headlines. But in reality, they have failed to put these plans into action.
Almost 700 hotel and motel rooms have been acquired for sheltering vulnerable unhoused people across the county—and yet only a fraction of them have been used in the two months since the stay-at-home order went into effect. In March, the city received over 100 trailers from the governor’s Office of Emergency Services which were placed in the east parking lot of Happy Hollow Park and Zoo.
Finally, during a City Council meeting on May 12, local officials approved a measure to open the trailers for use starting a couple days later. I tuned in to the council meeting that day to hear the discussion regarding Item 8.4: Actions Related to Temporary Sheltering Operations and Services for COVID-19 Emergency Response.
What I heard was disconcerting, to say the least.
Of the 104 FEMA trailers that were provided by the state, only 90 of them are fit for use, according to the city’s assessment. Representatives from the San Jose Housing Department claimed that the reason the trailers were not provided for use until two months after they were received is because they had to undergo repairs for things such as broken tables and faulty electrical hookups.
It was astounding to me that people who are at high-risk for contracting COVID-19 have been living under blankets and tarps when they could have been living under the roof of a trailer—unexposed to the conditions of the outdoors and at extraordinarily lower risk for two months. Even if there were 90 of 104 trailers up to the standards determined by the city, why haven’t they provided shelter in those 90 trailers up until this week?
Use of the trailers are also up to the discretion of state standards. Individuals must have tested positive for COVID-19, must be exhibiting symptoms and waiting on results from a test, or they must be at high-risk as determined by the CDC. People living in the trailers must comply with the shelter-in-place order, are not permitted to have any guests or visitors and must undergo daily temperature check and health screenings.
Occupancy of the trailers will progress in phases, starting with only 30 trailers being occupied, then 30 more when the city officials determine it is appropriate and 30 more after that. The area surrounding the trailers will be fenced off with 24-7 private security and a controlled entrance, which to me sounds more like an incarceration than a shelter.
It was discouraging to hear council members prioritize plans for the reopening of Happy Hollow before any people are even occupying the trailers. Above all, what was most disturbing was the response of the San Jose residents that called in.
I heard a woman speak about how she was outraged that nobody considered the likelihood that an unhoused person sheltered in one of these trailers would break into the zoo and infect the animals in the exhibits with COVID-19. Why didn’t anybody think of the animals!? Other callers were concerned with the safety and security risks this temporary shelter could have on families with children who want to visit the zoo after being forced to stay in their homes for two months.
Privileged people who have been able to shelter throughout this crisis are more concerned with their personal recreation than the survival of their unhoused neighbors.
Another caller cited the fact that he pays taxes as an example of why his opinion has more weight than someone advocating for the wellbeing of unhoused people who need vital care and shelter during this ongoing crisis.
On May 13, I took part in a protest—a “die-in”—to symbolize the lives that were lost during the local government’s inaction over the past two months and the lives that will be lost if the attention is not provided to the most vulnerable in the county.
We dressed in black and carried tombstones bearing the names of unhoused individuals that died in 2019. When we arrived at the gates of Happy Hollow, we laid down the tombstones and “died” around them. As we were wrapping up our protest outside of Happy Hollow, a representative of Abode Services (the contractor to operate the shelter trailers) was leaving the gated area and stopped to inquire why we were protesting. We explained to her why we were there, and I point-blank asked her: “Are 30 people moving into these trailers tomorrow?” She could not provide an answer.
I learned a lot from advocates of people who are unhoused during the planning of the die-in. Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 housing crisis phone line, which is promoted to help individuals in getting into shelters, has been ineffective in providing a resolution to people’s outreach and concerns, often leading to a dead end. People are being told that there are no shelter beds available while the city and county highlight their expansion of the temporary housing and shelter capacity during this time.
It is unclear who is to be held responsible for the inadequate emergency response because officials continue to pass the buck. City and county officials are making strides to re-open businesses and get people back to work without consideration for the safety of those who continue to be at highest risk.
It is reprehensible for the city and county to make all accommodations for providing shelter to these vulnerable people and then fail to implement their publicized plans.
Our unhoused neighbors are dying in the streets, creeks, cars, and shelters, and “we” are concerned about when we can get our next haircut.
Tara McHugh is the coordinator of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].