L.A. to convert rec centers into homeless shelters in bid to slow coronavirus spread

Coronavirus

A man sleeps on bench near a bus stop in Los Angeles, California on March 17, 2020. – Cities across the nation are worried about the homeless population as the coronavirus pandemic surges with the US death toll reaching 100. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

(KTLA) – Los Angeles will turn 42 recreation centers across the city into temporary homeless shelters in a ramped up effort to house people on the streets vulnerable to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

The rec centers will ultimately provide 6,000 new beds, with the goal of adding at least 1,600 beds across 13 facilities by the end of this week, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Wednesday in his daily briefing on the city’s virus response.

Garcetti acknowledged it would be “an unprecedented logistical undertaking,” considering the city’s usual pace in opening new homeless housing. But, he added, “We have the supplies, we have the space, and we are prepared for this task.”

As of Wednesday there are 69 cases within L.A., a 68% increase over the previous day, according to county health officials. That number is expected to continue to rise over the next few months, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said Wednesday.

The city will also temporarily suspend rules forcing people to take their tents down during the day. However, Garcetti said, tents that are back-to-back will be violation of social distancing standards.

The mayor said there’s currently zero confirmed cases among the city’s homeless, but it’s likely there would be at least one if testing were more widespread.

Outreach staff is working to identify 4,000 individuals living on the streets considered most at risk — those with underlying health conditions or of older age — so that they can be housed first.

The mayor added that the city has been working to lower capacity and space out beds in homeless facilities so that they’re in line with health officials’ guidance of maintaining 6 feet of distance between individuals.

The announcement came a day before L.A. city and county officials are set to meet with U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who according to the Los Angeles Times called an emergency hearing on the risk COVID-19 poses to the region’s large homeless population.

But Garcetti said the rec center plans were in the works before the hearing was scheduled. He outlined other steps the city has taken, including keeping its 500 winter shelter beds open until September, installing 300 handwashing stations and 120 mobile bathrooms at encampments and training outreach staff to teach social distancing.

L.A. will also have more leeway to provide emergency services, Garcetti said, after the City Council approved the withdrawal of $20 million from the city reserve fund for COVID-19 response.

Life in L.A. has altered vastly in the past few days, following an order from Garcetti Sunday night that shut down public gathering spots like bars, gyms and movie theaters, and banned dining out.

The outbreak has prompted many Angelenos to flock to grocery stores in an attempt to stock up, but Garcetti has emphasized that there’s no need to hoard and markets will restock.

In his Tuesday evening briefing, the mayor announced a relief program for small businesses affected that includes a $11 million loan fund and eviction moratorium. A halt on residential evictions is also in place during the crisis.

But, he said Wednesday, empty buildings and deserted streets are actually good news. With still too few people being tested, and a delay in results of four to six days, “all of us are safer at home,” he said.

“That is a direction of the (county) Department of Public Health, that is what the science tells us, and that is what we’ve seen across the country and world,” Garcetti said. “We know that this is the right way to respond to the pandemic.”

The mayor added that he doesn’t currently see a need for a lockdown or shelter-in-place order in Los Angeles, but he is ready to implement any further restrictions advised by public health officials.

The mayor reminded Angelenos that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation.

“Here’s my advice,” he said, “check in with loved ones. See how mom’s doing. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in months or even year. Reestablish real human contact.”

Anyone feeling depressed or like they have no one to talk to can reach out to the county’s Department of Mental Health hotline at 800-854-7771. If you prefer texts, you can message “home” to 741741 to be connected with a trained counselor.

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