Homeless services stretched thin by virus

Yaneth Reyes Zacarías plays with her son Emmanuel, age 4, at Operation Hope on March 21, 2020. She has been staying at the shelter with her children for the past two months./Zoe Meyers.inewsource

Almost two-thirds of the county’s homeless population is in the city of San Diego. But homelessness is a problem throughout the region – from the South Bay to North County.

The homeless shelters in these communities, one of which was struggling financially even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, are now being stretched thin as they scramble to meet the needs of the vulnerable people they serve every day. Here’s the situation at three of those shelters:

  • Operation HOPE-North County needs $127,000 by June 30 to keep its doors open in Vista and avoid making 12 homeless families leave.
  • Interfaith Community Services, with shelters in Escondido and Oceanside, has enough hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to last maybe another week.
  • South Bay Community Services in Chula Vista is operating at capacity and was having trouble finding enough toilet paper for the families and domestic violence victims it houses.

These shelters are not alone in struggling to serve San Diego County’s homeless during the coronavirus crisis. According to an annual count that generally is considered an undercount, the county has about 8,100 homeless people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than 60,000 homeless Californians could become ill with the coronavirus in the coming weeks. With 8,000 homeless people in San Diego County, service providers are scrambling to prevent the virus from spreading.

A survey released Tuesday of 428 San Diego-area nonprofits, including those that help the homeless, showed their biggest worries during the pandemic involve money and possibly having to lay off employees at a time when they are seeing an increase in demand for food, shelter and other basic necessities.

They fear a drop in donations and grant funds that keep their organizations afloat, according to The Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego, which conducted the survey.More than half of the nonprofits surveyed said unless conditions improve it’s unlikely they will be able to provide ongoing services eight weeks from now. Fourteen percent said it’s very unlikely they will be able to make payroll in the next four weeks.

Money problems are what keep Charity Singleton, executive director of Operation HOPE on edge.

“I’m anxious,” Singleton said. “I worry every day. I dream about it. I wake up thinking about it.”

With an annual budget of roughly $790,000, Operation HOPE houses 12 families — 24 children and 14 adults. Singleton has been scrambling to find the money needed to continue supporting them and the other program’s the organization provides. The nonprofit needs $127,000 by June 30, which will help keep the shelter open until Oct. 1.

Emmanuel Zacarías, age 4, plays through a window with other children at Operation Hope on March 21, 2020./Zoe Meyers. inewsource)

Otherwise, those families could wind up with nowhere to go, she said. And her nine employees, eight full time and one part time, “will all be pretty much close to homeless as well.”

The nonprofit started 17 years ago and runs a 45-bed homeless shelter for single women and families.

Those who live there are given a case manager and take classes to help them get jobs and manage their finances once they move out. In the last six months of 2019, the nonprofit reported a 76 percent success rate with those who left the shelter, meaning they went on to rent an apartment, enter a housing program or live with family. Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Encinitas, honored the nonprofit last year as a California Nonprofit of the Year.

Operation HOPE’s financial situation was more dire earlier this month. It needed $100,000 by April 1 to keep operating.

Then community leaders and private donors stepped up and raised $133,000 in a matter of days for the nonprofit. County Supervisor Jim Desmond, whose district includes Vista, also got the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to approve him awarding the group $40,000 from the county’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Program.

Operation HOPE’s money problems began in 2016 when it switched from a four-month winter shelter to providing services year-round, according to tax filings and staff interviews with inewsource.

“To protect our children, we must drug test,” Singleton said. “You have to be clean and sober before entering.”

Individual donations make up 77 percent of the organization’s funding, she said, and donations haven’t kept up with increased expenses.

The nonprofit fell short by more than $370,000 after the switch to year-round in 2016 and again by $245,000 in 2017, according to its 2018 tax filing, the most recent available.

Now, the coronavirus has created a “perfect storm” that has affected all aspects of daily life, including a dramatic decline in donations, Singleton said.

She started to cry as she spoke about her employees.

“Our staff works so hard,” Singleton said. “They’re the ones that create the space for our families to be successful. That’s what goes through my mind almost 24 hours a day.”

Anthony Hernandez, the Operations and Receiving Manager at Operation Hope, works in his office on March 21, 2020./Zoe Meyers. inewsource

But even the larger Interfaith Community Services, which runs two homeless shelters in Escondido and two in Oceanside, is experiencing challenges because of the coronavirus. It’s been in operation since 1979, serves about 17,000 people a year and has a $13 million annual budget.

The nonprofit hasn’t been able to find cleaning and sanitation supplies to buy for its shelters and expects to be out soon, said Greg Anglea, Interfaith’s CEO. If that happens, it won’t be able to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

“We have enough disinfectant wipes today,” Anglea told inewsource on Friday. “But some sites will run out later this week, and we don’t know when more are coming.”

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, co-chairman of the county’s COVID-19 subcommittee, said requests for additional supplies from any entity — homeless shelter or hospital system — are being taken.

“We’ll obviously have to prioritize the ability to fill those requests,” he said at a county news conference last week.

But as inewsource and KPBS have reported, the county is struggling to get enough safety gear for healthcare employees working with sick patients at medical clinics and hospitals. Among the shortages are face masks, N95 respirators, gowns, goggles and gloves.

Beyond adequate supplies, staffing is a problem, Anglea said.

Interfaith’s Haven House shelter in Escondido, which has 49 beds for men and women, switched from an overnight emergency shelter to operating 24 hours on March 18. Anglea wanted to make sure people had a place to stay during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay at home order, but he said it took “a real toll” on the shelter.

“It requires more staff at a time when we have less staff available. We have a lot of staff who are over the age of 65, staff with chronic health conditions, and so they’re all staying home to comply with the request to do so from the governor,” he said.

In Chula Vista, South Bay Community Services operates a 12-unit apartment complex as a shelter for homeless families and domestic violence victims. Each unit has a kitchen, living area, bathroom and closet. One is a two-bedroom unit, and the others are one-bedroom apartments, said Valerie Brew, the group’s child well-being department director.

The complex can fit up to 85 beds, with four twin-sized beds in the living room and three in the bedroom. As of Friday, the complex had a family assigned to each unit — a total of 40 people — and could not accept new people.

The shelter operators used to put families together in the apartments when it made sense but recently ended that practice to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Brew said.

The nonprofit, founded in 1971, has an annual budget of $27 million that pays for the shelter and many other community services, including housing assistance, mental health counseling, and domestic violence and child abuse intervention.

Brew said the shelter is well stocked with face masks, cleaning and hygiene supplies, and enough food for at least two weeks. Finding toilet paper, though, has been challenging. “It’s just the stores are limiting residents to one or two packages of toilet paper per household,” Brew said.

But just as the complex was running low, staff managed to find a supplier that would sell toilet paper in bulk. It’s expected to be delivered this week.

By agreement, The Grapevine publishes investigative, in-depth data-driven journalism from independent non-profit inewsource based at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. For more from inewsource, visit http://inewsource.org/about/.

This story was written by Cody Dulaney, an investigative reporter at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email codydulaney [at] inewsource [dot] org. inewsource video and photo journalist Zoë Meyers contributed to this story.

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