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'Someone Will Contract the Virus Here:' Meet Homeless Californians Trying to Survive a Pandemic

The following article was originally published April 30, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with Cal Matters.

Story by Byrhonda Lyons

Kent Dull lives at the Here There encampment in Berkeley, California. | Cal Matters
Kent Dull lives at the Here There encampment in Berkeley, California. | Cal Matters

The vast majority of people who were unhoused in California before coronavirus swept across the state are exactly where they were. Encampments still line the streets. Shelters feel more like a risk than a refuge. And affordable housing is as elusive as ever.

Watch as they capture moments from their everyday lives — and talk about how they struggle to stay safe and healthy under circumstances that have often grown only more hazardous.

For the above mini-doc, CalMatters interviewed people experiencing homelessness. And in an unusual arrangement necessitated by unusual conditions, we compensated three as freelance videographers to film themselves going about living their lives while most Californians remain in their homes under the state’s shelter-in-place order.

“It shouldn’t take this kind of event to get homeless into hotels or homes, especially the most vulnerable,” said Kent Dull, a resident of a Berkeley housing encampment who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. “I didn’t ever want to be vulnerable or sick, but I am.”

California has by far the greatest number of homeless residents of any state — the federal government last estimated their numbers at about 150,000.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would provide 15,000 hotel and motel rooms for unsheltered Californians. But those rooms aren’t for everyone — they are made available to people only if they are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, or after they have tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes it.

Nearly a month after the governor’s “Project Roomkey” announcement, only a little more than a third of those rooms are filled. 

Activists say that unless the state — unless it wants to be responsible for major outbreaks among homeless people who lack the resources to shelter safely with social distances or keep their hands germ free — should pay to put more people into the estimated 80% of hotel rooms that are now vacant.

But there are no widespread plans to do that. State officials say they worry about a surge and want to preserve many of those 15,000 rooms for homeless people after they get sick from the virus. Money is also an issue: The Trump administration will only reimburse California for hotel rooms for homeless people who fit more narrow criteria for having been directly affected by the virus. 

Some cities also are resisting. Several have legally challenged the state’s efforts, contending that impoverished people without homes also are more likely to be substance abusers or mentally ill — and would pose problems in the neighborhoods in which they would be placed.

A recent COVID-19 impact study co-authored by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, UC Berkeley and Boston University relied on a model with a grim outlook: “homeless individuals would be twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die” as people with homes.

Learn more about California’s homelessness crisis here.

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