California Dystopia Update, March 2020 edition: How the stage was set for a coronavirus homeless disaster

By Chris Reed
March 19, 2020

The debate over homelessness in California seemed to shift last fall, when dozens of local governments supplied or co-signed amicus briefs in a case in which Boise, Idaho, officials urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that banned arrests of people sleeping in public if they had nowhere else to go. The high court declined to get involved. But it was widely noted that one of the politicians who wanted this tool to crack down on the homeless was Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas — a member of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state homelessness task force and a longtime advocate of responding to the problem with new government programs. 

Plainly, compassion fatigue had set in with many local officials who saw the spread of squalor continuing even as government spending to help the homeless ballooned — and whose constituents had had enough.

But past decisions of local governments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and many other cities to accept filthy homeless encampments may come back to haunt officials not just in their re-election bids. Instead, this tolerance could lead to these encampments being ground zero in California for the deadliest fallout from steadily spreading coronavirus. Many of the state’s 151,000-plus homeless people are now or soon will be at grave risk. And 60,000 are at risk of dying in the next eight weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned Wednesday.

Those sleeping on the streets and in doorways have little ability to regularly wash their hands and shower. But that is far from the only risk facing the state’s homeless. A recent Los Angeles Times story noted how common it was for the homeless to have compromised immune systems because of drug use, pre-existing illnesses and years of living in crowded, unsanitary conditions. And those lucky enough to get into shelters will find they are usually so crowded that “social distancing” is impossible. 

This seems akin to a perfect storm of danger. And on Wednesday, Newsom acknowledged the threat, signing an executive order providing $150 million in state funding to local governments to protect the homeless and public health in general.

“People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. 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,” Newsom said in a statement.

The most significant specific step the governor touts is exploring renting more than 900 mostly small motels and hotels in 53 counties for use in quarantining the sick homeless. The state also hopes to procure more than 1,400 travel trailers from FEMA and private firms for the same purpose. But if homeless people in urban encampments get sick as often as patients in nursing homes — which a computer model cited by Newsom suggests — even if all these new facilities are added, they won’t come close to meeting demand.

There are of course a million angles to think about — to worry about — as the world deals with its most serious pandemic in more than a century. But in the Golden State, one to watch is whether liberal local governments’ belief that accepting mass homelessness was humane backfires in grotesque fashion. The evidence should be in soon.

Memory Lane Department: In March 2001, California was hit with a massive two-day rolling power blackout because the state grid didn’t have enough capacity when some alternate-energy producers went offline. How did the state respond to this and similar previous problems? By adding so many new electricity providers that a 2017 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that state ratepayers were spending billions of dollars each year to subsidize unneeded power plants — and that California regulators sometimes had to pay other states to take surplus solar power. This doesn’t seem, yunno, optimal. 

Penal Rental Department: For a cool $3,130 a month you can get an 869-square-foot apartment in downtown San Jose. The Craigslist listing notes the availability of a pool table and foosball in the apartment complex’s clubhouse. Not noted? That the areavibes website — which ranks quality of life across the U.S. — gives the neighborhood an F for crime and F for school quality. But at least the weather gets a B-plus.

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Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisreed99.

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