NIMBY alert: Don't put the infected homeless in our hotels

NIMBY alert: Don't put the infected homeless in our hotels

We’ve been keeping an eye on how the pandemic would affect the homeless in our country since the early days of the outbreak. At the end of last month, the first signs of this entirely predictable aspect of the coronavirus saga began showing up with the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 being reported in Los Angeles and Seattle. The problem has only continued to swell from there.

One solution that’s been proposed in multiple cities is to begin moving the homeless into hotels, where many rooms are sitting empty as people are hunkering down in their homes. The argument in favor of this theory is that the rooms are sitting idle anyway, so why not strike a deal where the hotels can at least make some money while keeping the homeless separate from each other as much as possible. Unfortunately for proponents of this theory, when this approach has been proposed, people objected and shut the plans down. (WaPo)

When a homeless shelter in northern Kentucky closed because it could not safely house people under social distancing guidelines, local officials arranged for residents to sleep at a convention center. But it soon became clear that the coronavirus could still spread in such an environment, so shelter director Kim Webb — like her counterparts in dozens of cities nationwide — looked to book hotel rooms for those needing a temporary home.

Webb, the executive director of Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky, and other advocates arranged to pay a Springhill Suites hotel in Florence, Ky., to house 40 people for the month of April — only to have the mayor object.

“In the middle of a pandemic — as we’re trying to drop 50 or 60 or 70 thousand dollars to put Kentucky residents in hotels — we get the door slammed and told, ‘There’s zoning issues or there’ll be code issues,’ ” Webb said. “If we can’t rally around people in a pandemic, my concern is: Are we prepared for what’s coming?”

I think pretty much everyone was aware that the coronavirus outbreak was always going to hit the homeless harder than anyone else, particularly in the big cities. It’s also very likely that the true number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 among the homeless is far greater than we’ve been told thus far.

First of all, the homeless tend to die in high numbers on a daily basis to begin with for a variety of reasons. In 2018, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone, averaging nearly three per day. All too often there isn’t even anyone available to claim the bodies, to say nothing of having a proper examination done to determine the exact cause of death.

The homeless tend to be in far worse health than the general population, usually lacking proper health care, nutritious food and, obviously, shelter from the elements. They are therefore among the most vulnerable to the worst effects of the disease. It’s very likely that a lot of them have already died from the virus with the cause of death being written off as the flu, exposure or some combination of other ill effects. Even the ones in shelters tend to face very crowded conditions with little in the way of proper medical care. You can see how the problem with the virus could rapidly become exponentially worse.

So why aren’t hotel rooms a good option? I suppose they are, at least in theory. But the owners of the hotels probably don’t want to cut their rates even for a good cause and they don’t want to have to deal with the potential damage repairs and sterilization required after the rooms are vacated if it turns out some of the guests were infected. Also, there’s always the NIMBY issue to deal with. Even the most well-intentioned people frequently don’t want any sort of homeless enclave being set up near their homes.

A better solution needs to be found. Perhaps some hotel rooms could be used in this fashion in the short term, but this virus is probably going to be with us for quite a while and there are far more homeless people than there are hotel rooms anyway. Some states have been doing impressive work in setting up emergency hospital facilities on short notice. Maybe some of that same energy could be channeled into creating temporary homeless housing.

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