450 rooms sought for Sonoma County homeless population amid coronavirus pandemic

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Jennifer Ammons parked her gray Toyota Yaris on Wednesday morning, put on her mask and gloves, pulled out her computer, copier and medication bag, and rolled her medical supplies into the Samuel L. Jones homeless shelter.

In the past, Ammons, a nurse practitioner, would have stationed herself inside the mobile health clinic typically parked outside the 213-bed southwest Santa Rosa shelter.

But that clinic now sits beside Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, serving as a testing area for the novel coronavirus, which has infected nearly half a million people worldwide and is just starting to surge in Sonoma County.

The residents, who call Ammons “Jen,” are aware of the virus known to cause the respiratory disease COVID-19. They’ve been coming up to her more often in recent days amid the outbreak.

“They’ll say, ‘Will you check my temperature?’ ” Ammons said. “Or, ‘Do you mind listening to my lungs?’ ”

Ammons does these checks, of course. But the quickening pace of the coronavirus’ spread may soon lead to more dramatic changes to her daily work. Sam Jones officials have set aside a small room for Ammons’ four-person team, and 45 of the residents were moved Wednesday to the Sandman Hotel in north Santa Rosa, allowing for better practice of social distancing inside the shelter.

The move marks the most significant step yet by homeless service providers to protect people taking refuge inside the local shelter system amid the coronavirus emergency.

Local leaders say more needs to be done to ensure the safety of a group twice as likely to require hospital stays and two to three times as likely to die from an infectious disease like COVID-19, according to a study released Wednesday from Boston University’s School of Social Work, UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania.

Sonoma County officials hope to secure 450 hotel rooms and deploy at least 10 emergency trailers to house a larger share of the county’s homeless population amid the pandemic. It has already closed many of the civic hubs that homeless people rely on in daily life, including parks, public restrooms and library branches.

Access to medical care is another serious concern.

“We have a large population over 60. They have chronic pulmonary conditions like COPD and asthma, and they’re smokers,” Ammons said. “And they are in living conditions that don’t allow for 6 feet of space all the time. So it’s a vulnerable population for sure.”

The new report from university researchers predicts 3,400 deaths in the nation’s homeless population from the coronavirus. In a breakdown of needs by county, the authors projected Sonoma County would need up to $88 million to safely house and care for the county’s homeless population during the pandemic.

It didn’t differentiate between the county’s total homeless population ­— the roughly 3,000 people found to lack permanent shelter at a given point in the year ­— and the so-called chronically homeless population, which represents people who have lived on the street for more than a year. Nearly 700 chronically homeless people live in Sonoma County.

The report follows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Tuesday of $150 million in funding for local governments to bolster homeless services in the emergency. Sonoma County received $1 million.

Officials are working “at breakneck speed” to find alternative shelter options for its most at-risk homeless residents, those who are older, have medical complications or are pregnant, among other factors, said Michael Gause, Sonoma County’s homelessness program manager.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The 450 hotel rooms are being sought to provide private shelter that would isolate high-risk people and any who show symptoms related to coronavirus. Gause said the county will look to deploy the 10 emergency trailers it received Feb. 27 from the state.

Gause could not pinpoint a timeline Wednesday to deploy either system.

Local homeless advocates have criticized the pace of the response, which threatens to open wounds still lingering following a monthslong standoff over solutions to the Joe Rodota Trail homeless encampment in west Santa Rosa.

Miles Sarvis, leader of the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, said the county’s pace isn’t just slow, “it’s actually detracting from progress.”

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said the problem requires a rapid response, but he also said the county needs to be deliberate.

“Time has to be of the essence on all of these issues,” Gore said. “Our response demands swift action, but not stupid action. We’re caught in that world where we need to make sure we’re ready for what’s coming.”

Sarvis and other advocacy groups also have taken issue with the Santa Rosa Police Department’s decision to enforce the countywide park closure ­— an order handed down Monday by the county health officer.

California Rural Legal Assistance, representing the advocacy group Homeless Action, sent a letter to Sonoma County and Santa Rosa on Wednesday urging the public health officer to offer a clear exemption for people experiencing homelessness, citing the need for the order to comply with an injunction barring enforcement in certain cases against homeless encampments.

Officials with the Police Department and a city spokeswoman did not return requests for comment.

With shelter capacity dwindling amid efforts to create more social distancing space, advocates say there are even fewer places available for those living on the street. Rather than rousting every new encampment, Sarvis said government leaders should find a way to provide mobile services.

“If I wanted to see the county do something, I would see them install hand-washing stations, put up porta-potties — give them a fighting chance, you know?” Sarvis said.

Ammons’ team is the only group providing medical care to Sam Jones —the county’s largest shelter — as well as Palms Inn and Redwood Gospel Mission, which altogether serve hundreds of people.

She said she has yet to examine a patient suspected of having coronavirus. She spent most of the day Wednesday on the phone with county public health officials, trying to secure tests.

She said she worries about her patients and the strain on resources and health workers tapped to deliver their care.

“That’s why I’m out there trying to keep them healthy,” she said. “I hope that I don’t have to go into isolation myself because at this point, I am one of the only providers going out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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