California's governor has ordered all residents to stay home. But for the growing homeless population in Santa Clara County, it's getting harder -- not easier -- to find a place to stay.
The order, which closed nonessential businesses, has also made it more difficult for those living in vehicles or on the street to stay clean. Amber Stime, the director of the nonprofit Move MV, said her office has received a spike in calls from unhoused residents saying many of the resources they've come to rely on have shut down. Bathroom facilities at public parks and showers at places like the YMCA were crucial for hygiene, but they have all abruptly shuttered.
"It was surprising and shocking for the vehicle dwellers," Stime said. "Especially for people in cars -- RV users have at least some access to toiletries."
Move MV, which runs Mountain View's safe parking program, currently has several RVs, oversized vans and cars parked in the former VTA lot on Evelyn Avenue. The vehicles were relocated from the Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lots pending a deal with Santa Clara County to provide all-hours parking for people living out of their vehicles.
For safe parking participants and callers alike, Stime said Friday she was referring them to portable restrooms and hand washing stations at Rengstorff Park, where the permanent bathroom facilities were shuttered in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The region's homeless population has grown fast in recent years, with the latest count showing there were 9,706 in Santa Clara County as of 2019. Since 2017, in just two years, Mountain View's homeless population jumped by 46% to 606 people, hundreds of whom have sought shelter by living in cars and RVs. Unhoused residents are more likely to get sick and be in poorer health, with nearly one in four reporting a chronic health problem.
Though the homeless are among the most vulnerable to the cornavirus outbreak, practicing good hygiene is going to be a challenge if public restrooms are all shut down, said Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency (CSA). When the mobile shower program Dignity on Wheels came to CSA's headquarters on Tuesday last week, Myers said it was packed with people waiting to shower because they can no longer get one anywhere else.
"I see hygiene issues for homeless as a health care crisis," he said.
Another shower program that was offered on Thursdays at Trinity United Methodist Church has been suspended due to the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, while Dignity on Wheels is too oversubscribed to make more frequent trips to Mountain View. Myers said he would urge the city of Mountain View to add more portable restrooms in strategic spots throughout the city.
As of Saturday, March 21, the city added hand-washing stations in and around the Civic Center plaza and a portable bathroom at Eagle Park. More information on the city's efforts can be found here.
Shelters shift gears, operate 24/7
County public health officials, in announcing the stay-at-home order, acknowledged that homeless residents will have trouble taking preventative actions to stay healthy, and encouraged homeless shelters to make space available "as soon as possible and to the maximum extent practicable."
Despite the advice, local shelters have instead had to hit 'pause' before accepting a surge of new people to prevent outbreaks. The nonprofit HomeFirst, which operates shelters in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, announced last week a temporary freeze on any new clients pending a host of changes that can accommodate safe social distancing.
It's been difficult making adjustments on the fly while demand is through the roof. HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton told the Voice that requests for shelter placement are streaming in, but the goal right now is actually a bed reduction, to make sure there is more space in between each person. The nonprofit's shelters are now open 24 hours day rather than the typical overnight hours, giving the homeless a safe place to stay throughout the day.
Urton said the last few weeks have been frantic for the nonprofit, which had to double its staffing on short notice in order to operate all-day sites, while simultaneously dropping its entire volunteer workforce as a safety precaution. New cleaning protocols are in place, and Urton said she recently purchased nearly $20,000 in UV sanitizing lights and $30,000 in masks -- none of which was originally budgeted for this year.
"We're doing everything we can to control the situation," Urton said.
With a lot more time to spend in the shelters, Urton said clients are reading books, playing games and using the available computers, but often they simply choose to sleep in their bunks. Everyone is regularly checked for a fever and other symptoms, and anyone who is ill is immediately placed in an isolation room. From there, Urton said HomeFirst staff finds them a motel room, packs up a care package of medical supplies and enough food to last seven days, puts them in a taxi and sends them on their way.
Placing sick shelter clients in motels has happened many times over the last few weeks, Urton said, with limited pushback from the motel owners.
Though shelter capacity is tight, that's expected to change soon. Urton said the county is moving quickly to open three new emergency shelter facilities in San Jose, with a goal of housing more than 200 additional homeless residents
"They are literally doing construction on these facilities as we speak," she said. "I have never seen our local government move so efficiently."
Starting last week, HomeFirst announced it will no longer accept in-kind donations like clothing, hygiene products and household goods until further notice, citing health concerns. Instead, Urton encouraged anyone interested in helping HomeFirst to donate cash, which can help with some of the sudden large costs for supplies like masks.