SACRAMENTO, Calif — Before he was Loaves and Fishes Advocacy Director, Joe Smith was homeless on the streets of Sacramento for five years.

His insider understanding of what it takes to survive the elements makes him increasingly alarmed for homeless amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"My fear is once this thing gets loose among the homeless community — and it will get loose — that sick people are going to have nowhere to go," Smith warned. "My fear is this is going to be fatal."

Sacramento County is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation, saying homeless should shelter in place.

But Smith argues, most of Sacramento's more than 5,500 homeless residents have no shelter.

“What they’re asking people to do is stay in place with nothing more than a tent and a blanket — and that’s saying they have a tent," said Smith.

That's why Smith wrote and released an advocacy statement on behalf of Loaves and Fishes. He said he believes the CDC's recommendation for homeless in unreasonable, and that concern has turned to frustration with what he says is a lack of response from city and county officials.

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"They've said a lot of great things about how important it is to take care of these folks, and we just don’t see anything," Smith explained. "We don’t see anything happening… No one is communicating with us."

And Smith isn't alone.

Many others who work directly with the homeless are worried.

"The city and county have done very little in terms of providing sanitation alternatives to homeless people," said Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

That's why Erlenbusch is planning on holding a virtual conference on Friday in which 19 homeless advocacy groups, including SRCEH, are expected to come together and call on the city and county to fund mobile bathroom and showers, port-a-potties, sanitation stations and more.

The lack of sanitary resources was alarming to homeless advocate Caity Maple, who, after receiving around $6,000 in donations from the community and her company Perfect Union, a cannabis distribution company, placed 30 sanitation stations around Sacramento.

Still, it's not enough, and Sacramento Homeless Union President Crystal Sanchez says it's time for officials to step up.

“It feels like our government has just backed away and left the un-housed people to try and figure this out," Sanchez said.

In what appeared to be somewhat serendipitous timing, Sacramento County released its plan and initiatives Wednesday on what it has been working on in regards to preparing and preventing the spread of coronavirus among the homeless.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the plan is a great start and hopes the initiative will help them implement what the city has been working towards even before the COVID-19 pandemic: to house homeless.

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"We now have a tremendous opportunity in Sacramento to do what we’ve been working to do for a long time," Steinberg said in a video interview with ABC10. "It's a tremendous start. I just want to make that the floor and not the ceiling."

ABC10 spoke on the phone with leaders of the initiative, including Sacramento County Homeless Initiatives Director Cindy Cavanaugh, the City of Sacramento's Homeless Services Manager Emily Halcon and Sacramento Steps Forward CEO Lisa Bates.

It's part of what they're calling a three-pronged strategy between the city, county and Sacramento Steps Forward.

(Click here and here for the actions the county says they've taken so far)

They gave ABC10 a rundown of their plan.

One of the most prominent and urgent initiatives on the agenda is getting homeless who are showing symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19 somewhere to isolate indoors.

They said they're currently working with shelters to expand as well as with local motels and hotels and have had "positive responses" from these business owners.

Sixty-three trailers are also expected to be delivered from the state government to Cal Expo where they'll serve primarily as isolation for those who are symptomatic or at high-risk. Both of these are in progress with no firm date of implementation.

The county said its also working to "develop a strategy to enable people living in encampments to safely remain in place." Officials disclosed they're working to assess the conditions of encampments and identify what needs need to be met as well as secure funding for sanitation stations and supplies.

When asked about a lack of response as well as providing sanitation supplies to organizations like Loaves and Fishes, county officials said there was a shortage of supplies nationwide.

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"I think it's been a little unclear for folks about what our plan is and what our approach is,"  said the initiatives leaders. "I think now that we've put this out there and are starting to operationalize it and see hotels and motels stand up, trailers, move toward encampment strategies, I think you're going to see real progress on the ground."

They say they hope this new initiative will help show change is happening and that you can expect to see it within the coming days or week.

But homeless advocacy groups like Loaves and Fishes have yet to hear from county or city leaders. Smith says this is especially problematic as more homeless are coming to Loaves and Fishes, despite their decreased hours, as panhandling is basically impossible and other resources for food are closing their doors.

"I'm going to keep after city officials," said Smith. "I’m going to keep advocating with every breath I've got."

Both Sanchez and Smith hope to work together with the county and city in order to bring their concerns and the voices of the homeless to leaders.

"We're asking for partnership," Smith said. "We're asking for collaboration."

Follow the conversation on Facebook with Andie Judson.


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