As part of an annual tradition to help homeless San Diegans during the holidays, volunteers at Father Joe’s Villages served Thanksgiving meals Wednesday. But organizers say this year is different, in part due to the ongoing hepatitis A outbreak.
“It's caused more phone calls of concern,” Father Joe’s Villages President and CEO Deacon Jim Vargas said.
Vargas says that people are more aware of the homeless population this year, and of the hepatitis A outbreak, which began its spread in November 2016 and has infected more than 550 people in San Diego County. Twenty people have died.
The outbreak has hit the homeless population and illicit drug users the hardest.
“I think there is a heightened awareness out there in the community as far as the homelessness crisis... especially with hepatitis A," Vargas said. "That has raised the consciousness level in people."
San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) has distributed more than 103,000 vaccines in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
A public health emergency declaration continues to be in place, allowing the county to garner funding for vaccines.
This week, HHSA officials were hopeful that the outbreak was slowing, noting a downward trend in new cases.
Father Joe’s Villages, an advocate for homeless outreach, has been part of the effort to stop the infection’s spread.
“We as an example have administered over 1,500 vaccinations against hep A, and so things are different this year than they were last year in a number of ways, in a number of dynamics," Vargas said.
Hepatitis A is spread person-to-person through contact with a fecal-contaminated environment, according to HHSA.
That puts those that work with the homeless population at risk, according to HHSA, including employees and volunteers at Father Joe’s Villages.
But the outbreak doesn’t seem to have affected those wishing to help. Last year, 10,000 people volunteered at Father Joe’s Villages. The organization says this year’s numbers appear to be on par, and for that, the homeless population is grateful.
"I was homeless, had no money, and [Father Joe’s Villages] got me into those apartments and for that I say, thank you Father Joe, and for this food, because I’d be hungry tonight,” one individual dining at Wednesday’s Thanksgiving dinner said.