COVID-19 threatens to ‘run rampant’ among homeless communities on Skid Row

One of the world’s most notorious homeless encampments has been hit with an outbreak of the coronavirus, and campaigners say the disease could run rampant among unsheltered communities.

More than 5,000 people live on the streets of ‘Skid Row’ in downtown Los Angeles and urgent action has been taken to move some of the most vulnerable into vacant hotel rooms during the crisis.

But the Union Rescue Mission, one of the largest shelters in the US, has seen 100 of its homeless residents test positive for coronavirus. It has now halved its regular capacity.

Reverend Andy Bales says its has been the most difficult experience of his life
Image:Reverend Andy Bales says its has been the most difficult experience of his life

The mission’s chief executive, the Reverend Andy Bales, told Sky News: “It’s the most humbling and difficult experience of my life and it’s the biggest, most devastating challenge in the history of our 128-year-old institution.”

He described coronavirus as a “ferocious, mysterious monster” and warned its impact would be greatest among those living outside of shelters.

“There is virtually no social distancing among the homeless on the streets of Skid Row. If it shows up on the streets it will run rampant.”

Many of those most at risk already suffer from the sort of underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable.

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Ferris has lived on Skid Row for three years and suffers from diabetes
Image:Ferris has lived on Skid Row for three years and suffers from diabetes

Ferris, who has lived on Skid Row for three years, is 66 years old and suffers from diabetes. He told Sky News: “I’m scared, to be truthful, I’m scared.”

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The Street Medicine Project run by the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine provides free healthcare to the homeless in Los Angeles.

Project director Brett Feldman says the coronavirus outbreak has had a major impact on its work, even to the extent of social distancing and masks making it harder for staff to greet people with a smile.

Skid Row is awash with tents in which the homeless sleep
Image:Skid Row is awash with tents in which the homeless sleep

He said: “There’s a few thousand people in a very small area and they can drop into shelters and soup kitchens at different times and if you were to contact trace them they might contract trace to 1,000 people in one day. For them I’m very, very concerned and we’ve seen outbreaks already on Skid Row.”

Authorities have taken drastic action to help the homeless community during the outbreak. Camper vans have been provided at a beach car park to provide shelter.

And, after years of trying to clear tents and encampments from neighbourhoods across Los Angeles, the first official tent city has been built in a hospital car park to provide shelter for homeless veterans.

Tents have sprung up in wealthy districts
Image:Tents have sprung up in wealthy districts

Mr Feldman says some homeless people see coronavirus as just another danger in an already risky of way of life but others are deeply worried.

“The rest of the world is saying stay safe, stay at home, and they don’t have a home so they feel completely exposed.”

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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