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COVID-19 outbreaks hit six of the largest Sonoma County homeless shelters

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COVID-19 outbreaks hit six of the largest homeless shelters in Sonoma County this past week, again raising concerns about the virus spreading among the vulnerable unhoused population — and forcing shelter operators to pause accepting new residents in the middle of winter, when many living on the street are in the most need of beds.

Amid a heavy surge of infections fueled by the extremely contagious omicron variant, small clusters of cases have been detected at shelters that account for well over half of the roughly 900 beds normally available in the county.

That includes Samuel Jones Hall and the Family Support Center in Santa Rosa operated by Catholic Charities; the Men’s Mission shelter, Rose shelter for women and children, and a winter shelter in Santa Rosa run by Redwood Gospel Mission; and the Mary Isaak Center Emergency Shelter run by COTS in Petaluma.

As of Friday, there were only around a dozen cases and one hospitalization among residents at the shelters, operators confirmed.

But given omicron’s contagiousness, officials are bracing for a potential wave of infections that could mirror a massive July outbreak at city-owned Sam Jones — the largest shelter in the county — in which 116 out 153 residents tested positive and two died of COVID-19 complications.

“It’s very concerning. I’m super worried about it, especially after what we went through over the summer,” said Kelli Kuykendall, homeless services manager for Santa Rosa.

While omicron is proving to be less deadly than the delta variant, which had until late last year been the dominant strain of the virus, it remains a significant threat to many homeless people, who often have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious illness. That risk is even higher for those who are unvaccinated.

The virus also is more likely to spread in group living settings such as homeless shelters, nursing homes and jails. Authorities on Tuesday confirmed an outbreak at the Sonoma County Jail that triggered the lockdown of over 200 inmates.

‘Pretty exhausted’

By Dec. 26, the average number of new daily cases countywide had climbed to 41.5 per 100,000 people. By Dec. 31, it had more than doubled, reaching a pandemic high of 92.2 cases per 100,000 people, according to the county’s latest COVID-19 data, which calculates 7-day averages.

By Saturday, the most current average local transmission rate was 91 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. Three weeks ago, that rate was 19 new cases.

Source: County of Sonoma
Source: County of Sonoma

Still, infections haven’t surged among the local homeless population, according to county data, though officials say testing the unhoused can be challenging.

Over the past 90 days, 36 homeless people have tested positive and one has died of COVID-19 complications. For the entire pandemic, there have been 363 cases among the county homeless population of an estimated 2,700 people. County officials could not immediately provide the total number of deaths.

Even before the coronavirus strained the shelter system, there were only enough beds for about a third of local unhoused people, with the rest living in vehicles or on the street, according to the county’s last homeless count in January 2020.

Under COVID-19 protocols, group shelters now dealing with outbreaks must stop accepting intakes until two consecutive weeks go by without any residents testing positive. And most shelters had already reduced bed capacity by as much as a third to allow for better social distancing.

“With what's happening, I don’t know of any shelters that are taking people right now,” said Robin Phoenix, shelter manager at the Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma.

One of the shelter’s 56 residents tested positive this week after the man was hospitalized with fever-like symptoms.

Phoenix said a handful of staff have also tested positive or had to quarantine, an additional stress on shelter operations.

“I’m pretty exhausted, but we stay the course,” she said.

Not enough beds also means local encampment enforcement could grind to halt. That’s because of a 2018 federal court ruling requiring municipalities in western states to offer shelter before clearing most camps on public property.

A similar 2019 federal injunction applying only to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County expired at the end of last year, but local officials must continue following the broader court ruling.

At the Redwood Gospel Mission Shelters in Santa Rosa, which has had about eight recent cases among around 120 residents at its three shelters, the outbreak has forced operators to turn away those seeking refuge from the winter weather.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

“It breaks our heart,” said Chris Keys, the shelter’s director. “There’s a lot of people this year coming to our front door as families. And it’s cold out there.”

Throughout the pandemic, shelter officials said they have required masks, screened new residents for COVID-19 symptoms and done regular testing. They’ve also continued to offer vaccines to residents, though it’s unclear exactly how many are currently vaccinated.

Residents who test positive have been taken to a county-run care site at the Holiday Inn in Windsor for people who need space to isolate while infected with COVID-19. But as of Thursday, nearly all of the 34 rooms the county is renting at the hotel were occupied.

County spokesman Gilbert Martinez said in an email that officials are unable to increase capacity at the site. But with new federal health guidance shortening isolation times for those without symptoms the county anticipates “a quicker turnaround and the ability to accommodate more individuals as others are discharged.”

In response, the Redwood Gospel Mission is partnering with another faith organization to this weekend open it’s own temporary isolation site in west county for up to 34 shelter residents.

Keys said staff are currently doing “as much as we can to keep distancing in mind, but in a congregant setting it’s pretty difficult.”

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials this week did not identify any specific plans to respond to the new outbreaks.

Cold weather brings new challenges

Last week as a freeze warning went into effect and overnight temperatures dropped into the 20s and 30s, Santa Rosa opened a temporary warming center with pop-up tents and heaters at Catholic Charities’ Homeless Service Center parking lot.

The county, meanwhile, said in a news release it was “hesitant to add additional capacity to existing congregate shelters or open new shelters” due to COVID-19 concerns. The release did highlight around 50 beds at recently opened winter shelters, though the 40-bed winter shelter run by Redwood Gospel Mission has since stopped intakes due to an outbreak.

Advocates with Sonoma County Acts of Kindness also set up two warming tents of their own in Fremont Park near downtown Santa Rosa and by a large encampment on private property off Stony Point Road in the southwestern part of the city.

But this week, Santa Rosa police took down the Fremont Park tent and gave camp residents notice to remove the one off Stony Point.

Sgt. Christopher Mahurin said the Fremont tent was removed because its stakes were drilled into city sidewalks and officers saw no one using it. The Stony Point tent was set up in a roadway raising safety concerns, Mahurin said.

For those reasons, Mahurin said, the tents were not covered by the 2018 federal court ruling requiring authorities to offer shelter.

Advocates dispute they damaged the sidewalk or that the tents caused safety issues. They described it as “cruel” to remove the tents while people are seeking a retreat from the elements.

“I don't know how anybody who did that could go home and sleep in their own bed,” said Katrina Phillips, chair of the county’s Commission on Human Rights.

Phillips said local governments should have done more to shelter local homeless people during the freeze warning, adding that when wildfires threaten homes “we have shelters at the drop of a hat” for thousands of evacuees.

Heather Jackson, a founder of Sonoma Count Acts of Kindness, agreed with Phillips but said homeless people can be reluctant to enter group shelters, something many officials acknowledge.

“A lot of people don't feel safe in those locations, so that’s not going to work for them,” Jackson said, advocating for supportive homeless housing with individual rooms.

During the pandemic, the county bought two hotels in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol that have provided that type of housing to around a hundred local at-risk homeless people. Local governments are now in the process of applying for state money to open about eight similar sites.

Using state and federal pandemic funds, the county and Santa Rosa also rented around 200 hotel rooms and set up two managed tent camps to keep homeless people safe from the virus, but most of those programs have now ended.

Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services in Guerneville, said some formerly unhoused people from the Russian River area have been able to secure rooms at the county's two converted hotels.

“Does that also mean that nobody needs housing now? No, particularly on cold wet nights,” Miller said.

According to the National Weather Service, nighttime temperatures across Sonoma County in the week ahead are forecast to dip into the 30s.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to reflect newly available COVID-19 case data released by Sonoma County on Saturday, Jan. 8.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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