Confusion spreads among homeless as officials fight coronavirus

In Summary

Residents with no homes worry that crowding into small shelter rooms with large numbers of strangers isn't safer than staying on the streets. Communication roadblocks are causing confusion.

As Fresno County scrambles to get its homeless population indoors during the coronavirus crisis, communication roadblocks are causing confusion and frustration, according to homeless people and their advocates.

Several people without homes who spoke to The Fresno Bee on Thursday said they worry that crowding into small rooms with large numbers of strangers isn’t safer than staying on the streets. Others feared having to give up their possessions. They said shelter rules are inconsistent and unclear, making them difficult to trust.

The county shelters have private rooms available, and room sizes vary from one to 16 people. People are allowed in with their pets, partners and possessions, and will be allowed to stay in rooms that mirror the groups they stay with on the street, according to Sonia De La Rosa, principal administrative analyst with Fresno County.

Getting that message out clearly, however, remains a problem as many homeless said they were skeptical about the requirements for staying in a shelter.

“I think if we got clarification on the rules, people would be less scared,” said homeless advocate Dez Martinez.

Andrea Harper, 34, suffers from a general anxiety disorder and lives in a tent on Santa Clara Street with her boyfriend. She said she would only go to the shelter if she was allowed to stay alone with her partner.

“I’ve already lived here for years. I’ve got lupus and fibromyalgia. I don’t fear the coronavirus,” Harper said. “I’d rather be out here and continue helping people before I go and actually put my health at risk in a shelter.”

Eric Jeffrey, another homeless resident camped on Santa Clara Street, said he turned down the shelter because he believed he would have to get rid of his stuff without being offered any help to find housing.

“When they dump us, we’ll have to start all over again,” he said.

Unlike the triage centers that opened last year, these shelters are not offering navigation services to help people find permanent housing.

“I wish we could offer more, but, at this point, their health is number one,” De La Rosa said.

She said her outreach team contacted 264 people on Monday alone, and 142 said they were willing to go into shelter if spots were made available.

“At this point, it really is about giving them a place to stay,” she said. “And be able to remain clean with access to showers, sinks and restrooms.”

Over the past week, Fresno County set up approximately 312 beds in dorm-like rooms at three buildings owned by RH Community Builders, using emergency COVID-19 funding from the state. Beds are spread among the old Hacienda hotel, former CAP campus and another building at 1040 North Pleasant Ave. So far, only the former CAP campus is running, as they have not yet reached capacity.

While only those above the age of 60 were offered shelter on Thursday morning, the county in the afternoon said they broadened their net to those who are ready to come in. People should not show up outside their locations, officials urged, because an outreach team must screen them first to determine whether they require isolation.

H Spees, director of strategic initiatives for Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, said officials want to house “every single homeless person in Fresno County,” but in order of vulnerability.

Katie Wilbur, executive director of RH Community Builders, said the shelters are enforcing the same shelter-in-place guidelines as the city. Meals are delivered to residents’ rooms and residents are encouraged not to leave the property.

“However, no one is being held against their will,” she added.

The rest of Fresno’s shelters are at capacity, leaving the homeless with few alternatives during the crisis.

The triage and bridge shelters, which opened last year, are at or near capacity. Existing shelters, including the Poverello House, Fresno Rescue Mission and Marjaree Mason Center, among others, have also experienced increased demand, according to De La Rosa.

The county has provided cleaning supplies for those facing shortages, De La Rosa reported. They have also installed about 30 handwashing stations for the homeless to access.

In order to help people shelter in place, the county and Caltrans have suspended the clearing of homeless encampments. The city has reduced its enforcement around the Poverello House.

De La Rosa said Fresno County is expecting a delivery of as many as 28 trailers from the state to house individuals who are awaiting test results. So far, she said, no homeless individuals have been tested or presented symptoms of COVID-19.

Manuela Tobias is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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