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Homeless in a pandemic: "If I get it, I get it."

Sage Wolf, the program manager for homeless services at Building Bridges, with dog Luna.

April 10, 2020 — The process of assessing members of the homeless population is ongoing, as the county, the city of Ukiah, and service providers are confronted with the question of how to get people inside, where they can shelter in place.

CEO Carmel Angelo told the board of supervisors on Tuesday that a large encampment on Hastings Avenue in Ukiah, with somewhere between forty and fifty people, would not be relocated to the fairgrounds. When it first came up, that idea was resoundingly unpopular with local schools and business owners, the fair, and 4-H leaders. 

The Marbut Report, which the county commissioned from a consultant on homelessness two years ago, recommends a zero tolerance approach to encampments. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not breaking up encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current situation is further complicated because the Hastings Avenue encampment is located in what the Ukiah City Council designated last month as a runway safety area, that needs to stay clear in case a plane misses the runway.

Tammy Moss Chandler, the director of Health and Human Services, reported that increased COVID-19 outreach efforts had led to eighty homeless people being housed, mostly using an already existing motel voucher program. She also said the county and the continuum of care have over $290,000 in emergency pandemic funds from the State of California to shelter unhoused people.

That money is a good start, says Sage Wolf, the program manager for homeless services at Building Bridges, the homeless resource center and emergency shelter in Ukiah, which is run by Redwood Community Services (RCS). But it will be “a drop in the bucket,” as far as filling the need is concerned. Wolf says RCS coordinated with the county and fellow non-profit homeless service provider MCAVHN (Mendocino County AIDS and Viral Hepatitis Network), to identify their most vulnerable clients and help fifteen of them move into hotels. 

The shelter has extra staff on hand to help keep clients safe from the virus, mostly through education, constant reminders, and hyper diligent sanitation. Wolf expects it to cost around $216,000 to keep Building Bridges running at the current capacity for another four months.

Shelter supervisor Dan Twyman notes that with almost everything else in town closed, Building Bridges is busier than ever. Many of the clients wake up coughing because of colds, a lifetime of smoking, or other underlying health concerns, so it’s tough to tell if the signs of the virus are present. He said staff do take the temperatures of people who are coughing, and so far, none of the coughers has turned up with a fever. “But in general, most of our population avoids doctors and those sort of things,” he added.

Raymond Derbigny Junior knows all about colds. He said he’s been homeless for about three years, after being disabled in a work accident. He likes to go outside by himself and throw a ball around for his dog and color. But he would really rather be in a hotel room. “If we’re outside, we’re out in the cold and the elements,” he said. “It keeps us coughing. It’s not because of the virus…we’re catching a cold again. I’ve gone through this cold maybe six times...Being here is not helping. The special ones get the motel rooms and the rest of us are stuck here...shouldn’t everybody be put somewhere where it’s safe?”

Cory Hoffert is also a guest at the shelter. He likes to work behind the counter, distributing clothes and supplies. On a recent day, he was rustling up a pair of warm socks for another guest who said he had just been kicked out of a motel. A fourteen-year-old boy came by to say he and his mother had just lost their place, and Hoffert gave him the last mask in the box. Hoffert is not panicking about the pandemic. “This may or may not be the most tactful thing to say, but I think I’m going to just go ahead and man through it,” he said. “If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t.”


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