Father Joe's Villages Paul Mirabile Center shelter at its St. Vincent de Paul campus in East Village saw 62 confirmed COVID cases in August 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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A surge in coronavirus cases that clobbered San Diego during the holidays also hit a few of the city’s homeless shelters, setting off a scramble last week to isolate residents who had been staying in packed shelters.

Dozens of residents of shelters operated by Alpha Project and Father Joe’s Villages have for days stayed in party tents used as stopgap shelters, which providers have struggled to keep warm amid cold weather and a shortage of county-backed hotel rooms meant to provide a safe refuge.

The county says it added 40 hotel rooms to address rising demand for isolation spaces on Monday, days after 50 positive cases emerged at Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan and East Village tents and at two downtown shelters run by Father Joe’s Villages.

Yet, as of Wednesday, the city and Alpha Project said only two shelter residents who tested positive had moved into of one of the 137 county hotel rooms set aside for people who have tested positive or been exposed to COVID and lack a safe place to isolate.  Nearly 40 shelter residents remained in makeshift isolation spaces late Wednesday as part of a required 10-day isolation period before they can return to city-funded shelters.

County spokesman Tim McClain wrote in an email that many are expected to complete their isolation periods in the improvised shelters with regular communication between providers, the Housing Commission and the county “to ensure those in isolation are receiving proper treatment.”

City shelter providers have received training on how to safely isolate people who test positive and “are responding accordingly during this surge in cases,” McClain wrote.

The county began contacting hotel operators last week to try to expand its offerings, McClain said. He added that increased tourism has made it less desirable for hotel operators to serve as isolation hotels, complicating the county’s efforts to add rooms along with ongoing staffing challenges.

The county efforts to add rooms came more than a week after UC San Diego researchers on Dec. 18 warned a surge in COVID cases could be coming to San Diego following a spike in coronavirus detected in wastewater.

Results from this week’s round of testing at city shelters are expected soon. For now, the city has paused intakes at the Alpha Project and Father Joe’s shelters dealing with outbreaks while it conducts additional testing.

Shelters nationwide are grappling with the more transmissible omicron variant in congregate settings particularly vulnerable to outbreaks and where to move those who get COVID.

In San Diego and elsewhere, coronavirus surges have only increased longstanding calls by advocates and some medical experts to proactively move more vulnerable homeless people into hotel rooms during the pandemic – and to expand offerings for those who test positive for coronavirus. San Diego County for now expects to wind down its hotel program by March 31 and has already stopped moving in homeless San Diegans with underlying conditions who have not tested positive for coronavirus.

The city, county and shelter providers have hurried to address outbreaks before and in some cases, have struggled with hotel access.

The Convention Center shelter the city and county stood up in 2020 was hit with more than 200 cases last December. In late August 2021, nearly 100 homeless San Diegans staying in two Father Joe’s Villages shelters tested positive.

Father Joe’s reported after its August outbreak that it took as long as four days for some shelter residents who received positive test results to move from the temporary isolation areas.

Months later during a holiday surge, Father Joe’s said none of its shelter residents have moved from a makeshift isolation space into hotel rooms a week after many received positive results.

During the August outbreak, Father Joe’s put up an open-air outdoor isolation tent in a gated area outside its Paul Mirabile Center shelter in East Village that in recent days welcomed both Alpha Project and Father Joe’s residents who tested positive.

But by last Wednesday, Alpha Project program manager Jesse Miller said 22 Alpha Project clients were confirmed positive and Father Joe’s said it needed the space for its own residents after receiving a wave of its own positive test results that eventually totaled 28.

There also wasn’t availability in county hotel rooms.

So that night, Alpha Project and the Housing Commission turned to the shuttered indoor skydiving facility turned city-owned Homelessness Response Center steps away from the Father Joe’s isolation tent for overnight accommodations. Nearly two dozen Alpha Project clients who had tested positive spent the night in the former skydiving center on sleeping mats provided by Father Joe’s.

Miller said Alpha Project and the city’s Housing Commission hurried to find other options, eventually settling on a plan for the nonprofit to pay upfront for a party tent similar to the one use by Father Joe’s that could be placed in one of the city’s safe parking lots for homeless people living in cars.

In the days since, Miller and Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy said the nonprofit has ferried those isolating back to its city shelters for showers, and hurried to ramp up meal service and heating at its new tent in the Aero Drive safe parking lot.

Housing Commission Executive Vice President Lisa Jones wrote in an email that the agency has agreed to reimburse Alpha Project for any purchases it’s rushed to make to “provide a supportive environment in the temporary spaces.”

Jones wrote that the city, Alpha Project and fellow nonprofit Jewish Family Service settled on the safe parking site because it offered access to restrooms, handwashing stations and controlled entry. Jones also said people living in vehicles who had been spending the night at the Aero Drive lot have been referred to open spaces at the city’s Mission Valley and Balboa Avenue safe parking locations.

Jones and leaders at Alpha Project and Father Joe’s Villages commended shelter staff tasked with responding to the surge in cases during the holidays and a time of already short staffing, a dynamic that the county has said has also throttled its hotel program. McElroy also praised the Housing Commission and shelter residents – including those who contracted COVID – who he said also stepped up during a crisis.

McElroy said he wished the city and county had better prepared for an expected holiday surge associated with the more transmissible omicron variant at a time when many nonprofit and local government employees take time off, exacerbating the staff shortages all have faced during the pandemic.

Instead, providers and the Housing Commission scrambled last week, he said.

“We knew that there was going to be a tsunami here and then we didn’t have any resources,” McElroy said.

John Brady, who once lived on the street and now serves on the leadership council overseeing the city’s progress on its homelessness plan, said he reached out to city and county officials before Christmas to inquire about their plans to protect shelter residents and address an expected increase in positive cases associated with the omicron variant.

Brady said he appreciated the responses he received from Jones and Hafsa Kaka, director of the city’s Homeless Strategies and Solutions Department, but that he was disappointed that that the city and county’s later response to the spike in cases seemed to reflect a lack of advance planning.

“We should have been ahead of the game,” Brady said. “We’ve been through this rodeo before.”

Kaka wrote in an email to VOSD that the city and county partnered to provide additional COVID testing starting after Thanksgiving and have activated protocols since then to ensure safety for shelter residents and those who test positive. Transportation to a county-operated hotel room has traditionally been part of that plan.

But Kaka and the county have said staffing challenges complicated matters.

“The rise in positive cases being seen throughout the San Diego region greatly impacts already limited staffing resources, both on the service provider and county public health teams. This has presented some challenges in transportation to and availability of county public health rooms,” Kaka wrote. “The city and (the Housing Commission) have worked around-the-clock with the service providers to ensure that there are options for isolation in the interim until county public health rooms are made available.”

Nathan Fletcher, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said at a Monday press conference that the county recognized the need for more isolation rooms amid the spike in COVID cases in shelters and was hurrying to add more. But he said the county has continued to struggle to make sure they can properly serve residents staying in them.

“The challenge on those is not only getting the rooms, but getting them staffed,” Fletcher said.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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