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LA activists, public health experts fear revived encampment sweeps could spread coronavirus

LA activists, public health experts fear revived encampment sweeps could spread coronavirus

The resumption of major homeless encampment sweeps in Los Angeles in the past week have activists worried that such enforcement operations could prompt a “super-spreader” event, endangering the lives of the unhoused, who are at a higher risk of dying from the virus, and the health of the wider community.

Positive COVID-19 cases have been reported at encampment sites where major sanitation operations, known as CARE+ (Comprehensive Cleaning and Rapid Engagement Plus), were noticed and scheduled this week, according to activists working with the homeless and city Department of Sanitation officials.

Reports of positive tests delayed or canceled sweeps at some encampments.

In all, the city scheduled several dozen major cleanup operations over the week, marking a drastic shift from the city’s practice during the pandemic to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that people not be forced out of encampments and instead be allowed to shelter in place or quarantine.

Mayor Eric Garcetti did not directly respond this week to the concerns raised by activists, stating only that he expected cleanups could go on while still being done in a humane way. City council members who responded ranged in their responses, with some saying they expected the return of the sweeps to be an improvement in neighborhoods where the encampments reside. One said the sweeps were appropriate because the encampments themselves posed a public health danger.

But public health experts also joined activists warning that the sweeps increase the public health risks for not only encampment residents, but the wider community.

And on Friday, in response to reports of COVID infections in at least two encampment sites that had been targeted for CARE+ operations, public health officials issued a statement saying that it “supports efforts to address hygiene and safety at encampments; these efforts should not permanently clear encampments without ensuring housing and supportive services for residents.”

On June 15, the pandemic appeared to be easing in California and most restrictions were lifted by state officials. But since then, L.A. County and most of California have endured a weeks-long surge. Though recent numbers have logged improvement, officials warn that the pandemic is far from over, with case numbers potentially increasing again.

In late August, public health officials warned about an upswing in cases among unhoused people; as of Sept. 5, 8,689 infections had been reported among the county’s homeless.

On Thursday, Leo Contreras, a 34-year-old unhoused resident in the Winnetka area, said that more than a week ago he started feeling his chest closing up. “I could not breathe — and I have asthma,” he said.

It felt like “hot air” was filling his lungs. He said that it was so bad that he felt as if he would lose consciousness if he tried to stand up. After he grew fearful that a friend he had called would not show up in time, he dialed 9-1-1 for an ambulance that then took him to the hospital.

On Thursday, he showed a Los Angeles Daily News reporter a piece of paper with the results of a COVID-19 test taken at the hospital. He said he was several days into the 10-day quarantine period recommended by a doctor.

“I’m out of breath doing anything, especially with a broken leg, too, on top of everything else,” he said.

Contreras was resting in a wheelchair along an industrial cul-de-sac in Winnetka. A yellow dog with floppy ears sat in his lap, having run up earlier to accompany him while he talked. Every once in awhile, he looked back behind him whenever he would hear the sound of a truck.

He said that a sanitation crew was scheduled that day to come by and he may have to leave the area while a cleanup of the area was performed.

He said he learned of the cleanup from a notice that was posted at the end of a block two days ago, signaling to Contreras that he could be in for another round of watching his things, including potentially ice chests or job interview clothes, get thrown out.

“It sucks, because I know I’m going to lose some stuff, when they come — they don’t play,” he said. “Sick or not sick, I will lose some stuff. That’s how it goes.”

Knowing the scramble that many encampment residents undergo during the CARE+ operations, activists who regularly do outreach to Contreras and others had shown up to assist them to relocate their belongings temporarily out of the path of the sanitation crew. Usually there is very little lead time, they said, with encampment residents often given as little as 15 minutes to leave if they were still in the area.

A sanitation crew staffer told activists at another encampment earlier in the week that one person technically had 15 minutes to pack up their things, but had given the person some additional time.

The law enforced by the cleanup crews requires that notices are posted at least 24 hours before cleanups begin.

When activists learned that Contreras and others had tested positive for COVID-19, they notified the Department of Health Services and asked public officials and agencies “to intervene and to stop the sweep” at that location, said Kim Olsen, an activist with West Valley Homes YES.

At least five operations had been scheduled this week in the area. According to activists, people from one encampment often visit acquaintances and friends at other sites.

Activists this week also helped two other people at another encampment who had fallen ill with COVID-19 get referred to quarantine rooms. They had been living in an RV on a street that was not far from where two other sanitation cleanups were scheduled.

Olsen said the she has been seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the area, “at the same time that the city has decided to sweep multiple encampments.”

She also said that this combined with the low vaccination rates among law enforcement officers, and potentially others amounted to a “disastrous situation.”

She also pointed to a UCLA study released earlier this year saying people who are homeless are 50% more likely to die from COVID-19 than the general population.

The Los Angeles Police Department reported that as of Sept. 3, the vaccination rate for law enforcement officers was 47%, a lower rate than that of the general population. LAPD officials have repeatedly outlined steps they’ve taken to strive to improve those numbers.

Elena Stern, a spokesperson for the sanitation department, said that the dozens of cleanup operation came at the direction of the Los Angeles City Council, which had voted at the end of June to resume the major encampment clean-up operations.

Since then, reports of infections have not only come out from the San Fernando Valley, but also at encampments in Venice where CARE+ cleanups were scheduled, according to activists and sanitation officials.

Stern said Thursday they were declining to comment on the concerns raised by activists, but confirmed that there were cleanups downgraded to “spot cleaning” at the encampment site at an encampment in Venice, because of positive test results, as well as the site where Contreras lived, “due to an individual self-reporting that they were recently released from the hospital for COVID related treatment.

Time constraints, she said, also prevented other sites in the area from getting cleaned, she added.

Peggy Kennedy, an activist and organizer with the Venice Justice Committee that runs a free citation legal clinic for unhoused in Venice, said that she had learned from a sanitation crew member that one of the planned cleanups on Wednesday had been called off last minute, due to an outbreak.

She said that people at the encampment targeted had not yet been informed that crews were no longer planning to do a major cleanup, which would have required them to remove themselves and their property from the area.

Kennedy said that even with the cleanup called off, residents expressed frustration that the work they put in to prepare for the event turned out to be a waste of time.

Kennedy said that based on what she has observed of such operations, whether they end up happening or not, they seem especially risky to conduct amid a pandemic.

“There’s a lot of interaction,” she said. “It creates less social distancing because people work together in these communities once this is happening to move stuff.”

“Say a very disabled person is going to have a hard time taking their tent down and packing up, and a neighbor, quite likely, they’re going to help,” she said. “It creates a situation where there is far less social distancing, but people have to help their neighbors.”

Los Angeles public health officials have meanwhile remained muted, at least publicly, on their response to the sanitation department-led clean-ups, as well as other enforcement related to Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.18, which bans sitting, lying down, sleeping and storing property in many areas around the city.

County public health officials continue to provide guidance on best practices for preventing the spread of the virus shelters and other settings. Public health officials also reiterated that they partner with other agencies and cities to provide services and guidance, as well as screening testing at shelters, interim housing, encampments and other homeless service settings.

The Los Angeles area, along with much of the rest of the country, has in recent weeks seen an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases. Activists for the unhoused are joined by public health experts in arguing that nothing has changed in terms of the CDC’s guidelines on the federal level.

“The CDC recommendations are really clear,” said Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UCLA School of Medicine. “We don’t displace people, while there’s a pandemic … Doing sweeps during a pandemic is unquestionably bad policy.”

Shover, who was a supervising epidemiologist in the Department of Public Health earlier in the pandemic, said that “the only time that it makes sense from a public health standpoint to move people during a pandemic, especially people who are positive for COVID, is if you’re getting them into places where they can more safely isolate.”

But if the move only comes as a way of dispersing people, “that’s worse both for the people who are being moved, and for the community around, just because anytime that you’re exchanging new groups, you’re just increasing the risk of exposure.”

She added that even when people are moved into private hotel rooms to isolate, it should also account for the fact that people may need a place to store their belongings.

“That’s all you have,” she said. “You don’t want to lose it … it’s not just like hey here’s your private room, leave all your belongings behind.”

Shover said that the Department of Public Health has shared a similar stance during the pandemic, related to the CDC guidelines around not displacing people at encampments. But she said that the city encampment sweeps are likely not something the county public health department has much control over.

In late August, Health Director Ferrer responded to a series of questions from the Los Angeles Daily News, including one about the effects of pending enforcement actions, such as LAMC 41.18 sit-lie ban, going into effect that could potentially displace people.

“Here at public health, we try to do our part to be a good team player with the broader effort which is to secure permanent permanent housing and in those places where it’s appropriate, supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness,” Ferrer said.

Responses to the report of outbreak and concerns raised were met with varied responses from city elected officials in the past week.

Garcetti did not respond directly to public health-related concerns about the sweeps, but said in a statement that “we don’t need to choose between keeping our public spaces safe and clean, and connecting Angelenos experiencing homelessness with the services and housing they need.”

“We can and will do both, and we will continue to respond to this crisis in a way that is humane, compassionate, and responsive to the urgent needs in our communities,” he said.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, a mayoral candidate who has pushed most strongly for the resumption of major cleanups, pointed to the encampments themselves as the “biggest threat to our public health and safety.”

“People are back at work and school. Vaccines are readily available and free of charge,” he said. “There are no excuses that justify allowing unregulated encampments to continue on our sidewalks.”

Buscaino did not respond to a follow-up question about the concerns raised by public health experts and activists that the major cleanups could further spread the virus.

Buscaino, who represents the Harbor Area, has also already issued a resolution aiming to put in several zones in his district where sitting, lying down, sleeping in public right of way areas would be prohibited, using the 41.18 law that went into effect on Sept. 3.

Councilwoman Nithya Raman, who represents Sherman Oaks and other parts of Los Angeles, said their CARE+ cleanups are scheduled “in advance” which means “we have time to plan for adequate staff deployment and resource delivery to best serve individuals who are impacted by these cleanups.”

She said their staff works with LAHSA, outreach workers and community members “to educate and support the individuals who are living in the locations where CARE+ cleanups are scheduled to take place.”

She said there have not been outbreaks associated with cleanups in her district so far, but “if or once we do, we will take appropriate actions to review our operations and ensure the safety of the community.”

Councilman John Lee, who represents the area where Contreras lives, did not respond to the Daily News’s request for comment.

Contreras, meanwhile, said Thursday he views the resumption of the CARE+ cleanup as more likely a return to what it was like in the old days, when “once they’ve got it (your belongings) in their hands, they don’t give a damn, they don’t really care what you tell them.”

But while he has lost important documents, food and clothing amid the sweeps, he was most affected, he said, by the loss of a treasured photo of his daughter.

“Honestly now, I don’t feel nothing, no more, when they take my stuff, especially after they took the picture that I took of my daughter — the first picture I ever took of my daughter,” he said. “They don’t know how much that picture meant to me. My daughter is turning 18 this month. And that picture is 18 years old, (or) it could have been.”

For now, he urged city officials to at least put a hold on the sweeps and “let us get through COVID still.”

“Some of us haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet,” he said. “COVID is still going on. I’m COVID positive.”

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