By the time the shelter in place orders for everyone came down, John Bost could already see the writing on the wall.
The president and volunteer of Livermore’s cold weather homeless shelter was already short on volunteers, after many seniors who support the shelter’s operations were forced to cancel shifts at the Refuge amid earlier health advisories ordering seniors, considered most vulnerable to COVID-19, to stay at home.
Even with enough volunteers, Bost said in an interview Monday, the shelter could not operate without bringing a medically trained person to implement health screening protocols, and isolation protocols for people with COVID-19 and those demonstrating symptoms. Ensuring social distancing to protect guests and volunteers would also require a significant challenge, he said.
“It kills me to make this decision and, if there were some other way, I would do everything to keep the Refuge open and operational,” he wrote on the organization’s website.
Help could be on the way.
On March 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order aimed at protecting homeless people in California from COVID-19.
The order frees up $150 million in emergency aid and implements protective measures to help limit the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless, many of whom have no option to self-quarantine or isolate.
“People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” Newsom said announcing the order. “California is deploying massive resources to get these vulnerable residents safely into shelter, removing regulatory barriers and securing trailers and hotels to provide immediate housing options for those most at risk. Helping these residents is critical to protecting public health, flattening the curve and slowing the spread of COVID-19.”
The order provides $100 million directly to local governments for shelter support and emergency housing for homeless people. The remaining $50 million is being used by the state to purchase more than 1,300 travel trailers and to lease rooms in hotels, motels and other lodging facilities to quarantine homeless people with COVID-19 or those demonstrating symptoms.
At a special Livermore City Council meeting Monday night, City Manager Marc Roberts said the city is working with homeless care providers to get homeless people safely housed.
“Running a homeless shelter in normal times is pretty complicated. There are very specific rules; there are trainings to be done for the volunteers and other things,” he said. “Running it during an epidemic or a pandemic is exponentially more complicated.”
Roberts said he expects to reach a solution within a few days.
With Newsom’s executive order, the state offered to contact hotels and negotiate leases if a county requested that assistance. The state compiled a list of more than 950 hotels across 53 counties that are potentially eligible for participation in a state leasing program.
Even before the order, the state and counties had already begun outreach to hotels and motels, and executed lease agreements for some. The first two hotel leases involved two properties with a total of 393 rooms in Oakland that will come under the control of Alameda County.
These rooms will be put to use as emergency protective measures by the local governments as isolation capacity for homeless individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are symptomatic, or otherwise at significant risk, according to the governor’s office.
Bost, whose day job is lead pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Livermore, said he expects challenges ahead. The homeless population is as diverse as the larger population.
Some of the most difficult cases are the chronically homeless who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and long stretches of unemployment.
But Bost has seen the value in housing people. A hot shower, bed and a meal is not a silver bullet, but it can bring a measure of dignity, and have a significant impact on a person’s outlook.
“None of this is easy. It never has been so,” Bost said. “At least we’re used to this.”