The United States' 3.8 million square miles are split into 3,141 counties. Humboldt is one of just 43 identified by an investigative journalism project as having a homeless population most vulnerable to COVID-19.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism spent months this year creating an index based on an analysis of homelessness and poverty rates, shelter beds and physicians in counties throughout the country. Humboldt County — one of just 10 rural counties of the 43 identified — received a homeless vulnerability index of 4, the highest possible.
Given the metrics, it's not surprising the project would determine the local homeless population to be vulnerable, as Humboldt has a high poverty rate (20 percent) and one of the highest per capita homeless populations in the country, according to the biennial point in time counts, as well as documented shortages of physicians and shelter beds. But the designation seems to underscore the challenges for Public Health officials, outreach workers and volunteers looking to protect local homeless people from COVID-19 as winter looms on the horizon.
"We were talking about what to do with winter coming, which it is. It always does in Humboldt County — it gets wet and cold," said Eureka Rescue Mission Executive Director Brian Hall of a recent Zoom meeting with local service providers.
The biennial point in time count found last year that more than 1,400 people in Humboldt County had experienced unsheltered homelessness on the night of Jan. 22, which would put Humboldt County's per capita homeless rate at about three times the state average.
The fear among providers is that the number of unsheltered homeless people in town far outpaces available shelter space, which is being further limited by protocols designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Back in April, the state launched Project Roomkey, which used Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to rent hotel rooms for homeless people who are over the age of 65, have underlying health conditions or are otherwise medically compromised and thus more likely to suffer critical outcomes from COVID-19.
Locally, Public Health has used Project Roomkey to temporarily house more than 150 people for a combined 8,000 bed nights and counting, according to Joint Information Center spokesperson Christine Messinger. The county has also provided more than 300 nights of temporary shelter at the Humboldt Inn to homeless people needing to isolate or quarantine because they had COVID, were awaiting test results or were exposed. The city of Arcata sanctioned camping in several parking lots around town, too, which Messinger said accommodated about 95 people for a combined 3,500 nights before shutting down earlier this month.
But if past years are an indication, coming cold and wet weather will spur people out in the elements to look for shelter, and it seems there will be few options.
"We have not identified a way to provide winter shelter to many while still respecting the governor's request to move from congregate sheltering to individual sheltering," Arcata House Partnership Executive Director Darlene Spoor said in an email, explaining that the nonprofit has already changed procedures to put people in single-occupancy rooms, decreasing capacity. "Arcata House Partnership will not be offering a winter shelter the same way we did in the past. We continue to look for protocols to keep people safe during COVID and have reached out to other counties for their best practices."
Hall said the mission currently has nearly 70 people in its men's shelter, with 28 more in its women and children's facility. To comply with COVID-19 protocols, he said staff took apart all of its bunk beds and spread them out in the dormitories, placing them 6 feet apart and staggering them "head to feet." It's also requiring daily temperature checks and masks. But he said the facility is keeping its population stagnant, meaning folks staying there are free to go out in the community to work during the day but the facility is only accepting referrals who have tested negative for COVID, not walk-ins.
"It's really just been a regimen," Hall said. "It's really burdensome, to be honest with you."
In past years, when the weather has turned bitter, the mission has tried to accommodate whoever comes looking for shelter, spreading them across the cafeteria floor or — if need be — working with the city of Eureka to open up St. Vincent de Paul's dining facility for more overflow capacity. But COVID-19 protocols seem unlikely to allow that.
Last month, local philanthropist Betty Chinn opened her latest venture — a women and children's shelter across from her day center on Seventh Street in Eureka, with a capacity of about 20 people. Lost Coast Outpost reported earlier this month that the city is also looking at using funds from Project Homekey (a second phase of the state's Roomkey) to convert the Pine Motel on Broadway into a transitional housing facility that could accommodate 15 people and would be managed by Chinn, but the city won't know until next month if its grant application is accepted.
Kathryn O'Maley, a supervising public health nurse who's overseeing Project Roomkey for the county's Office of Emergency Services, said the topic of finding additional sheltering options for Humboldt County's homeless residents has come up at weekly planning meetings.
"It's something we're looking at strongly," she said, adding that staff is currently looking for state guidance on how a congregate shelter setting might be done safely in a way that meets COVID protocols.
Some cities — including Las Vegas, San Diego and Santa Barbara — have turned convention centers or high school gyms into emergency shelters large enough to allow for physical distancing protocols. San Diego opened its convention center as an emergency shelter, testing site and meal distribution hub at a cost of about $2.8 million a month, according to a Howard Center report, and had sheltered 2,780 people as of early last month. The city plans to keep the facility open through the end of the year.
The good news locally, according to Hall, is Humboldt County's homeless population hasn't seen an outbreak of COVID cases. According to a report by the Howard Center, research has shown higher rates of COVID-19 in sheltered homeless populations than those who remain unsheltered, which would make sense given what we know about how the virus spreads through the air, putting those in congregate living settings at greater risk.
Providers and outreach workers say a large percentage of the county's homeless population is currently camping outdoors but they worry freezing temperatures and driving rain will change that. Hall said he hopes preparations are made in time. But if they're not, he said he can't imagine turning anyone away when the frosts and rains come.
"We're just going to accommodate them," Hall said. "I'm not going to turn someone away in the pouring rain or cold because of a fear of the COVID virus. I'm just not."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.
The Community Voices Coalition is a project funded by Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation to support local journalism. This story was produced by the North Coast Journal newsroom with full editorial independence and control.