SAN FRANCISCO: When the coronavirus emerged in the US this year, public health officials and advocates for the homeless feared the virus would rip through shelters and tent encampments, ravaging vulnerable people who often have chronic health issues. They scrambled to move people into hotel rooms, thinned out crowded shelters and moved tents into designated spots at sanctioned outdoor camps. While shelters saw some large Covid-19 outbreaks, the virus so far doesn’t appear to have brought devastation to the homeless population as many feared.
However, researchers and advocates say much is unknown about how the pandemic is affecting the estimated half-million people without housing in the US. In a country that’s surpassed five million cases and 169,000 deaths, researchers don’t know why there appear to be so few outbreaks among the homeless. “I’m shocked, I guess I can say, because it’s a vulnerable population. I don’t know what we’re going to see in an aftermath,” said Deborah Borne, who oversees health policy for Covid-19 homeless response at San Francisco’s public health department. More than 200 of an estimated 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco have tested positive for the virus, and half came from an outbreak at a homeless shelter in April.
One homeless person is among the city’s 69 deaths. In other places with large homeless populations, the numbers are similarly low. In King County, which includes Seattle, more than 400 of an estimated 12,000 homeless residents have been diagnosed. In Los Angeles County, more than 1,200 of an estimated 66,000 homeless people have been diagnosed. It’s slightly higher in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, where nearly 500 of an estimated 7,400 homeless people have tested positive, including nine who died.