Fortifying Homeless Shelters Against the Spread of COVID-19

DHS Housing for Health teams unbox various sanitation tools for limiting the spread of COVID-19 throughout facilities serving the homeless.

Determined to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in homeless shelters, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has provided a $575,000 grant to purchase partitions, air flow devices, and other protective equipment to ensure safe physical distancing and prevent the spread of infection among vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health (DHS)’s Housing for Health Division will use the Supervisor’s grant to help shelters and interim housing facilities make immediate modifications to sites within Los Angeles County’s Second District, protecting the health and safety of both residents and staff.

“People who have been living outdoors, exposed to the elements and without access to basic necessities for possibly years on end, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Turning shelters into an extra-safe haven during the pandemic will protect not only our homeless neighbors but also the heroic street outreach teams and others who work with them, as well as the general public.”

“Congregate living environments in which residents share spaces are vulnerable to the spreading of infections,” said Libby Boyce, DHS Housing for Health Director of Street-Based Engagement, Interim Housing and Enriched Residential Care. “Improving infection control measures is the number one safeguard against COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters and interim housing sites. It is up to leadership in the homeless services community to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are as protected as possible. We are so grateful to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas for making this critical resource available.”

The shelter improvement project is an added layer to the County’s comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. DHS Housing for Health has led the testing surveillance strategy for people experiencing homelessness in both sheltered and unsheltered environments. In addition, 23 temporary COVID Response Teams were created to do wellness checks, provide technical assistance and testing. To date, more than 26,000 tests have been performed and more than 400 shelters and 800 encampments have been visited.

In addition, DHS Housing for Health operates several hundred quarantine and isolation beds to ensure that individuals who cannot isolate in place can be safely housed while recuperating from COVID-19. The County CEO’s Homeless Initiative also worked to reduce the number of people in congregate shelters by securing 4,000 hotel and motel rooms through Project Roomkey. These rooms are for homeless individuals over age 65 or who have a medical condition making them vulnerable to COVID-19.

The County Department of Public Health oversees all COVID-19 outbreaks, contact tracing and data reporting. Meanwhile, various County departments have provided significant support around acquiring personal and protective equipment for homeless service provider partners, as well as daily food delivery to the unsheltered to prevent them from having to go to food banks or food services where many people congregate for meals.

The shelter improvement project funded by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas is an outgrowth of assessments carried out by the COVID Response Teams to better protect the health of shelter residents and staff. The shelter modifications will include installing room dividers; plexiglass for desks; hand sanitizer dispensers at all entrances; no-touch light switches, door openers and paper towel dispensers; foot pedals for turning water on/off; HEPA air filters; antibacterial UV lighting; disinfectant sprayers; and other protective equipment.

Created in 2013, DHS Housing for Health focuses on creating permanent supportive housing opportunities and providing clinical services for chronically homeless patients within the DHS system of care. With their complex medical and behavioral conditions, these patients tend to be frequent users of emergency healthcare and public safety resources, including the jail system.

DHS Housing for Health oversees and funds several homeless service programs, including more than 300 street outreach workers within Multi-Disciplinary Teams working with unsheltered individuals across the County, recuperative care and stabilization interim housing, board and care placements, access to social security benefits, and permanent housing opportunities.

DHS Housing for Health’s street outreach workers in Skid Row. Photo by Aurelia Ventura