The homeless crisis in California has often been referred to as a public health crisis, yet despite nasty and ancient diseases discovered in homeless encampments, there has been no urgent statewide mandates to deal with homelessness. COVID-19, the Coronavirus, a modern-day disease, that has captured the attention of the world might change that.

When “medieval diseases” like typhus appeared in homeless quarters, politicians were shocked and determined to act. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his first State of the State speech, flatly stated, “Our homeless crisis is increasingly becoming a public health crisis.”

While cities sent public health officials to confront the spread of disease, notably San Diego’s effort to confront a hepatitis outbreak, no warlike efforts have been marshalled statewide to deal with homeless encampments that have proven to be breeding places for the spread of diseases.

Now the fear of the spread of Coronavirus joins a line of disease outbreaks of typhus, hepatitis, and an assortment of bacteria threating the homeless communities. With the dangers of the spread of this sometimes deadly flu-like disease that has caused event closures and panic buying, the government might be ready to declare an emergency that would include mandates to help the homeless to shelters and to demand that they follow health protective guidelines.

As I reported on a homelessness conference hosted at USC by the Schwarzenegger Institute and the Sol Price Public Policy School, former Governor Gray Davis urged that an emergency be declared to suspend laws that serve as obstacles to building homeless shelters and to follow the legislative models dealing with some sports venues to quickly pass environmental reviews.

Such a move should be coupled with mandates for the homeless to use the resources provided and follow the rules to confront mental health and drug problems, and importantly, public health threats. 

Resistance from homeless advocates push back against mandates that they fear will lead to “criminalization” of homelessness. But a public health crisis—which the homeless situation has been all along—has come into sharp focus over the Coronavirus scare. The homeless communities, with the lack of facilities to wash and protect themselves, are particularly vulnerable. That vulnerability puts the larger population at risk as well. Perhaps that great threat will spur emergency actions.

I hesitate to use the cliché that a “good crisis should not be wasted,” especially because the word “good” seems so appalling in this dangerous situation, but the Coronavirus outbreak has opened the door for government to take quick action on a public health issue that people are watching and help advance positive changes for the homeless at the same time.