Soar­ing home­less num­bers re­sult in deadly out­break of hep­ati­tis A

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Julie Wat­son Gregory Bull, The As­so­ci­ated Press

The As­so­ci­ated Press

SAN DIEGO» For Christine Wade, the tent she shared with six chil­dren, pitched in an as­phalt park­ing lot, was far bet­ter than their pre­vi­ous home — a shel­ter where rats ate through the fam­ily’s bags of clothes.

“It’s peace­ful here,” Wade, 31 and eight months preg­nant, said in Oc­to­ber at the camp­ground.

A tent, of course, is not a home. But for these San Die­gans, it is a bless­ing.

Like other ma­jor cities all along the West Coast, San Diego is strug­gling with a home­less cri­sis. In a place that bills it­self as “Amer­ica’s Finest City,” spi­ral­ing real es­tate val­ues have con­trib­uted to spi­ral­ing home­less­ness, leav­ing more than 3,200 peo­ple liv­ing on the streets or in their cars.

Most alarm­ingly, the deplorable san­i­tary con­di­tions help spread a liver-dam­ag­ing virus that lives in fe­ces, con­tribut­ing to the dead­li­est U.S. hep­ati­tis A epi­demic in 20 years.

“Some of the most vul­ner­a­ble are dy­ing in the streets in one of the most de­sir­able and liv­able re­gions in Amer­ica,” a San Diego County grand jury wrote in its re­port in June — re­it­er­at­ing rec­om­men­da­tions it gave the city dur­ing the past decade to ad­dress home­less­ness.

San Diego has strug­gled to do that. Two years ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer closed a down­town tent shel­ter that op­er­ated for 29 years dur­ing win­ter months. He promised a “game changer” — a new, per­ma­nent fa­cil­ity with ser­vices to fun­nel peo­ple to hous­ing.

But it wasn’t enough.

The re­sult? Le­gions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans with­out shel­ter. A spread­ing con­ta­gion. And an ex­tra­or­di­nary chal­lenge to the city’s sunny iden­tity that threat­ens its tourism in­dus­try.

For now, San Diego again is turn- ing to tents. The camp­ground where the Wades lived served 200 res­i­dents but was only tem­po­rary; this month, of­fi­cials are open­ing three in­dus­trial-sized tents that will house a to­tal of 700 peo­ple.

There are plans afoot to build hous­ing. But to deal with the im­me­di­ate emer­gency, the city had to take $6.5 mil­lion that had been bud­geted for per­ma­nent homes to op­er­ate the gi­ant tents.

“The peo­ple of San Diego need to de­cide what they want the city to look like,” said Gor­don Walker, the head of San Diego Re­gional Task Force on the Home­less. “San Fran­cisco has es­sen­tially given up its streets to the home­less. It could go ei­ther way here. The real is­sue is we don’t have enough hous­ing.”

Last year, the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing out­doors in San Diego jumped 18 per­cent over the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to an an­nual count taken in Jan­uary. More than 400 makeshift shel­ters cov­ered down­town side­walks along­side new apart­ment high-rises.

In Oc­to­ber, Faulconer teamed with home­less ser­vices provider Al­pha Project to open the Bal­boa Park camp­ground where the Wades found shel­ter. The city in­stalled wash­ing sta­tions, opened 24-hour re­strooms and scrubbed streets with a bleach so­lu­tion.

Po­lice also cited peo­ple. Within weeks, the nearly 400 tents and tarps down­town dis­ap­peared.

Mean­while, the num­ber of en­camp­ments along the banks of the San Diego River dou­bled.

The mayor has ear­marked more than $80 mil­lion to re­duce home­less­ness over the next three years.

“Ul­ti­mately the goal is to put ev­ery­one in a home who wants to be,” Faulconer said.

But units need to be built, and the tem­po­rary so­lu­tion is ex­pen­sive. At a cost of $1,700 per person per month, $6.5 mil­lion will cover seven months, but the tents may need to be open for two years.

Mean­while, San Diego County has spent $4 mil­lion to contain the hep­ati­tis out­break that has killed 20 peo­ple and sick­ened more than 560 in the past year.

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