Exposure On The Streets: Homeless Outreach Adapts To Virus

All this week, KCBS is airing a special series “Exposure On The Streets:  The Race to Stop The Spread Among the Homeless,” a closer look at the magnified risks facing the Bay Area's homeless residents during this pandemic and what is being done to keep them safe. For Part One, which looked at how homeless residents are protecting themselves, please click here

Today in Part Two of our series, KCBS Radio reporter Keith Menconi introduces us to some of the community organizers who have been working overtime during the lockdown to make sure homeless residents aren’t forgotten. 

On a recent outreach trip to a homeless encampment along San Jose’s Coyote Creek, Pastor Scott Wager and his team of volunteers made their usual donations of food and supplies. The residents who live along this creekbed seldom interact with the outside world and for many, the team’s work has long been an important lifeline of support. 

Wagers, a longtime fixture of homeless advocacy in San Jose, has made trips like this for decades but he has now added protective gear to the supplies and is making sure all the residents are informed about the pandemic.

A flier posted by CHAM Deliverance Ministry volunteers on a tree next to San Jose's Coyote Creek to inform those who live in nearby homeless encampments when food distributions will take place
Keith Menconi/KCBS Radio

“Has anybody told you about coronavirus and what it is?” he asked one woman. “Stay away from people… I’ve got masks.”

Wagers says he plans to continue the outreach, especially now that the coronavirus is forcing many other community groups to suspend their work as they shelter in place. But he has had to adapt to the times.

“I shrunk my team down. We used to have dozens of volunteers but we asked people not to come out,” he says. And that has had consequences. “There’s a lot of people we cannot reach right now.”

As he makes the rounds from encampment to encampment, what he sees in the areas he can reach worries him. “You see the conditions out here. They’re already unsanitary, needless to say the creek’s very dirty.”

And on top of that many of the residents are living together in cramped tents and ramshackle buildings.

“There’s always more than one or two, packed in together,” says Wagers. “That’s the real dangerous part to me.”

He fears how easily the virus could spread within an encampment, especially with many residents who are suffering from other medical conditions and have little access to healthcare. So even has the need for support is perhaps greater than it has ever been, Wagers is actually trying to limit his trips to prevent unwittingly introducing the virus to a population that is otherwise isolated. 

CHAM Deliverance Ministry volunteer Rick Crawford manning the food table during a distribution to homeless residents living near the Tully Community Branch Library in San Jose
Keith Menconi/KCBS Radio

So for the time being the team is holding their food distributions in a limited number of areas, all of which have plenty of space to spread out, allowing them to continue their work from just a bit more distance.

Tomorrow when the “Exposure on the Streets” series continues, we meet some of the doctors and nurses rushing to curb the spread of the coronavirus before it gains a foothold in homeless communities.