Helping San Diego's Homeless Will Protect All of Us from the Coronavirus, Advocate Says

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Earlier this week, city and county officials announced an ambitious plan for the homeless amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The focus is on moving the homeless off the streets and into the city’s Golden Hall auditorium, the downtown Convention Center, and vacant hotel rooms.

But on Thursday, homeless advocate Michael McConnell was still unsure if that strategy was working for the people on the street, who must buy into the initiative.

McConnell told NBC 7 Investigates that San Diego Police and city clean-up crews are missing an opportunity to protect the homeless, and reduce the rate of coronavirus infection.

Instead of forcing the homeless to clear out their tents and move along, McConnell said police should be educating them about COVID 19; at the very least passing out the County's informational flyer that uses illustrations and simple text to explain how everyone can help “flatten the curve”.

McConnell says the flyer is a good start, but he wishes it had more useful information for homeless people who might have coronavirus symptoms or know someone who does.

“What's missing is, 'What do I do?', 'Where do I go to get help?" McConnell said.

McConnell spends much of his day on the street, helping San Diego’s homeless get the help they need to survive. He’s especially worried about the elderly homeless, many of whom have serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

He says coronavirus could be a death sentence for them, and they must be isolated to protect themselves and others.

"These folks should not be placed in a shelter,” McConnell said. “I want to emphasize this. If we have folks who are experiencing homelessness who are older and who have underlying conditions, we absolutely should not be placing them in any kind of (crowded) situation. That should not happen."

McConnell also says police should not ticket people living in their cars, because they are safer alone in their vehicles than in a shelter, where the virus can spread.

"So don't try to force those folks into a shelter,” he said. “Let them be in their car and give them access to a hotel room at some point, if possible."

Preparations are still being made to house the homeless at San Diego’s bayfront Convention Center. It will be occupied by men who do not show any COVID-19 symptoms.

McConnell says that fortunately, no one in the local homeless population has tested positive for COVID-19. But staff at Father Joe's Villages downtown has identified four people with flu-like symptoms at its homeless shelter. Those test results are pending.

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