Serving Seniors staff required everyone at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center to wash their hands before entering on March 14. / Photo by Kayla Jimenez

Crystal Marks, a mother of two boys, 11 and 13, who attend Integrity Charter School in National City, brought her kids – and with a bottle of bleach and other cleaning supplies – to the Central San Diego Library Friday afternoon after she found out suddenly that her kids won’t be returning to school on Monday as planned. Virtually all public schools across San Diego County will be closed beginning Monday to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Even though Marks and her kids come to the library five to six times a week, she said she’d support the library’s decision to close.

“It’s very bizarre and very new,” Marks said. “We have limited information and need to take precautions.”

San Diego’s families and students across the county like Marks and her children rely on the county’s public facilities like libraries for books, computer access and broadband connection. Homeless individuals rely on public libraries for computers and shelter during the day, and the city’s newly opened Housing Navigation Center for health services and housing assistance. Senior citizens and other individuals rely on the county’s health and benefits offices for food assistance and health services.

Earlier this week, the county announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people and officials called on organizers of smaller events to maintain distances between participants of six feet or more.

Many of these public facilities accommodate more than 250 people at a time every day, and regularly stand more than within six feet or more of each other.

As county and nationwide concerns about the spread of the coronavirus grow, some of these public service facilities across the county are already closed or face potential closures. Those closures have the potential to drastically change the daily lives of San Diego’s vulnerable populations, including seniors, the homeless and families.

Public Libraries

Librarians don’t typically wear black gloves while helping patrons at desks surrounded by sanitation wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer but on Friday afternoon, one day before the city announced it will close its 36 branches on Monday, a plethora of cleaning supplies were available to patrons at the Central Library in downtown San Diego.

Cleaning supplies were available to patrons at the downtown Central Library on March 13. / Photo by Kayla Jimenez

The city’s decision to close libraries, recreational parks and pools until April 6 “unless an extension is warranted” followed the San Diego Unified School District’s announcement of closures, according to a press release. Chula Vista also announced Friday that all libraries in the city will be closed until April 5. Libraries in other parts of the county remain open but have canceled programs and events.

On Friday, San Diego County Library suspended all of its public programs in all branches of the county through at least the end of March to comply with county guidelines, Jennifer McBride, a spokeswoman said. Cancelations includes all events like classes, story times, programs and book clubs at library locations or sponsored by the library. Online library services will remain open to the public countywide.

At California State University San Marcos, where classes are moving to online classwork, libraries remain open with limited hours. At UC San Diego and the University of San Diego, libraries remain open. San Diego State University’s library will be closed starting Monday, March 16.

Benefits and Health Offices

The county’s benefits and health offices are currently evaluating all essential services and whether those will remain open, a spokeswoman for the county said Thursday. Tammy Glenn, a spokeswoman for the county, said staff is pinpointing other services that people who rely on these services can go to in case of closure.

Homeless Shelters and the Housing Navigation Center

On Imperial Avenue, at the center of the city’s homelessness community, two men on Friday afternoon wore masks covering their faces while huddled on a street corner with other homeless residents. Across the street, on the doors of the Housing Navigation Center, was instruction provided by the County’s Human Health & Services Agency’s on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Inside, the Housing Navigation Center assists people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. Workers there connect homeless people with immediate and long-term resources and provide crisis management and on-site access and referrals to medical, mental health and substance use disorder services.

The downtown Housing Navigation Center on March 13 / Photo by Kayla Jimenez

Anthony White, a spokesman for Family Health Center, said Friday afternoon there are no plans to close the center. Verna Gant, a site manager there, said she hadn’t heard many concerns from homeless people who use the center about the virus, but had made an effort to post signs outside its doors and refer clients to local hand-washing stations.

The city’s bridge shelters, run by the San Diego Housing Commission, are also open and operational.

The County’s March 12 health order did not prohibit homeless shelters or emergency shelters as they help protect public health and safety,” said Ashley Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Mayor. “Given the alternative of living without access to basic sanitation and medical treatment, homeless shelters offer many health-related advantages to individuals who would otherwise be unsheltered on the streets, canyons and riverbeds.” 

Scott Marshall, a spokesman for the Housing Commission, said county health nurses are providing services on-site at each of the four shelters until further notice. Marshall said last week, the commission made sure the shelter programs received guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding precautions to mitigate the potential spread of infectious diseases in congregate-living situations.

“SDHC, the city of San Diego, county of San Diego, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and the shelter operators are communicating regularly and working with one another to help prepare for and address any issues that may arise related to staffing needs, supplies, and the HUD and CDC guidance,” Marshall said in an email.

Marshall said the Housing Commission is also taking other precautions and said effective March 16, meetings with members of the public will be limited to phone or email.

Service Providers Are Working in Overdrive

Other nonprofits that run assistance programs for the homeless like Serving Seniors, Father’s Joes Villages and Meals on Wheels are working in overdrive as they prepare to provide for the city’s seniors and homeless individuals who will suddenly have limited contact with outsiders and access to help.

At Serving Seniors’ flagship location, the Gary & Mary West Senior Wellness Center, between 500 and 600 seniors on weekdays and 300 to 400 seniors on weekend, many who are below the poverty line, typically fill the dining rooms each morning for breakfast and each afternoon for lunch. But starting Friday morning, staff at the organization were required to send off seniors at the facility with to-go meals.

Serving Seniors, one of the largest providers for meals and services for seniors in the county, drastically reduced services Thursday when the county’s Aging and Independent Services told the organization it needed to close its services at all of its sites. The organization also provides seniors with facilities, computer labs and socialization activities.

Paul Downey, president and CEO of Serving Seniors, said the organization typically serves 2,500 meals to seniors each day throughout all of its sites and home delivery service. This it is the first time the organization’s 12 facilities have not had congregate meals in its dining rooms since it opened, Downey said.

“The county gave us virtually no notice,” Downey said.“At 4:30 on Thursday the county said you need to shut down [congregating].”

Downey said the organization was very aggressive about keeping facilities open and was taking precautionary measures to ensure safety at the centers on their own, but he understands the county’s concern and caution for the county’s seniors.

“Now it’s a little more complicated to provide safety because of the virus,” he said. “At this point we’re operating completely uncharted waters.”

He said Serving Seniors has the capacity to provide meals to seniors throughout the county through home delivery and is welcoming seniors who are 60 and above and concerned about going out to grocery stores to access their meal services.

Joe Gavin, chief program and community engagement officer of the San Diego Senior Community Foundation, said he’s concerned it’s only a matter of time before they close more senior centers down for typical social activities and events and only allow pick-up points for meals.

“One of our biggest concerns for people 65 and older is accessing food and medicine,” Gavin said. “Which is why people picking up meals or having them delivered is helpful. It’s an open-ended crisis. We don’t know when this is going to end.” Gavin said the concern for seniors in times of the pandemic is “perhaps of harbinger of what is to come in supporting older adults in our communities.” 

Meals on Wheels, an organization that delivers meals to seniors at home, is operating as normal, said spokeswoman Joice Truban Curry. Curry said the organization is putting a call out for younger volunteers to help them because a lot of its volunteers are older and are themselves vulnerable.

Father Joe’s Villages wrote in an email Friday the nonprofit is working in partnership with the city, county, Health Center Partners, other homeless service agencies and UC San Diego to create and implement an action plan. The non-profit will continue to offer showers seven days a week though the San Diego Day Center and is working with the county to provide additional hand-washing stations in the community, according to the release.

“Father Joe’s Villages understands that during crises like these, the people who would receive the least amount of support are the populations we serve every day — the most vulnerable amongst us. Should the situation escalate, we will continue to provide essential health care, housing, meals and other basic needs to help our neighbors through this time,” the release reads.

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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