Patience zero

Photo by Graham Womack

Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee board president John Kraintz sits after a March 11 continuum of care meeting.

John Kraintz has struggled to get basic sanitation to Sacramento’s homeless residents before.

Kraintz, who serves as board president of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, said he worked with a group of women who unsuccessfully tried to install sanitation tanks and portable restrooms in areas with known concentrations of unsheltered people.

“The city has been making them pull out,” Kraintz said of the group. “For years, we’ve been down at City Hall trying to get them to open up bathrooms that have been locked up and sealed.”

Now, a decade after the Great Recession signaled a seemingly-permanent end to public restrooms in much of Sacramento, the novel coronavirus pandemic might be acutely felt among the city’s homeless residents.

And if disease strikes that population, it could spread with devastating speed.

“With this coronavirus here, we can no longer afford to entertain this lack of hygiene,” said Kraintz, who secured housing a decade ago following eight years of homelessness. “We’re asking to start a pandemic here.”

City responds, but is it enough?

At a special meeting March 13, the City Council declared a state of emergency in response to coronavirus and took several actions, including authorizing City Manager Howard Chan to spend as much as $250,000 to distribute sanitation and cleaning supplies to homeless residents.

Responding to a question from SN&R at a press conference the day before, Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the money could go toward hand-washing stations. He reiterated that, even before the outbreak, the city’s drive was “to bring the homeless population indoors” and that it would have 700 new beds by summer. An overnight survey last year estimated that 5,570 people in Sacramento County experience homelessness, most of them in the city.

“But in the meantime, what do we do?” Steinberg continued. “We try to minimize the spread of infection among that very vulnerable population.”

A day earlier, though, Loaves & Fishes executive director Noel Kammermann told SN&R that he hadn’t gotten satisfactory answers from local leaders regarding plans to address the homeless population’s potential vulnerability.

“I’m still deeply concerned at the fact that we’ve been asking for restrooms and wash stations for years,” Kammermann said after a local continuum of care advisory board meeting. “Previously, it was for the immediate concerns around hepatitis A and e-coli. Now, we’re seeing concerns around the coronavirus and the ill-preparedness of the community to address this mainly because we have a lack of restrooms and wash stations.”

On Tuesday, Sacramento Homeless Union, Perfect Union and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby announced that hand-washing stations would be delivered to six of the largest homeless encampments.

It matters, because health experts say the coronavirus disease is deadliest among older adults and those with chronic diseases. According to last year’s homelessness survey, nearly a third of individuals sleeping outdoors are 50 or older, and “are more likely to report various health conditions and other challenges.”

While homeless people may be less likely to come into contact with international travelers, they are more likely to be in contact with older, sicker adults and lack access to the preventative measures that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended. Homeless people can’t easily wash their hands with soap; they can’t stay “home” when they get sick; and they can’t practice “social distancing” in camps or shelters.

Kammermann said his nonprofit, which serves roughly 1,000 people daily, hadn’t had any staff or clients showing symptoms of coronavirus. “It’s probably a matter of time before it hits a little bit closer to home,” he said. “And we’re going to need to take some precautions.”

On March 16, Loves & Fishes asked volunteers and staff age 65 and up to stay home and reduced operating hours for most of its campus services.

Others have also called for more money. Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, emailed board chairperson Sarah Bontrager asking that an item be placed on the group’s April agenda to urge local governments to allocate $1 million “for a mobile shower and bathroom program along with hand-washing stations.”

Erlenbusch added that a representative from Goodwill had been at the meeting and could get the project, which would consist of two mobile showers and bathrooms monitored by six homeless people, up and running now.

County homeless czar quiet

The city’s actions came after a flurry of activity, which included the state releasing guidelines March 11 for homeless service providers. They include setting up ongoing communication with public health departments, identifying clients at high-risk and “urging providers to equip themselves with prevention supplies, such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers, tissues, trash baskets, disposable face masks … and mobile hand-washing stations.”

On March 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state wants to move homeless people out of encampments so it is finding motels and hotels and plans to put another 450 trailers across the state.

Another stakeholder in the crisis is Sacramento County, whose director of homeless initiatives, Cindy Cavanaugh, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. At press time, the county had announced no specific measures to address the risk of coronavirus in the homeless population.

With the Trump administration unable to provide enough tests to even gauge the disease’s spread, many have found the government’s trickle-down response slow-footed and inept. In Sacramento, that translated into a GoFundMe campaign to raise $5,000 for hand-washing stations in homeless camps. Organizer Caity Maple said she decided she couldn’t wait after getting no answer from local political or public health leaders about what they planned to do.

Asked by SN&R at Thursday’s press conference if the city has enough money to ensure all of the different groups impacted by coronavirus could receive assistance, Steinberg said Measure U had given Sacramento ample resources.

“We’ve got lots of ways we can partner with the state government, the federal government, the private sector to try to help as many people as possible,” Steinberg said. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

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