“At a basic level, if folks don’t have a safe, affordable place to live, it is nearly impossible to address physical conditions like hypertension or diabetes, or mental health issues like post-traumatic stress or schizophrenia,” says Danielle Wildkress, chief program officer at Brilliant Corners, a nonprofit that provides supportive housing throughout California to those overcoming homelessness and individuals living with disabilities.
Brilliant Corners, a CCF grantee, operates a variety of supportive housing models, including the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool, a partnership with philanthropic, health care, nonprofit and government stakeholders to utilize private market units and spur the creation of affordable housing options to get people housed. Since its launch in 2014, the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool has provided affordable housing with wraparound support services to 8,000 formerly-homeless Angelenos across the County—from the Antelope Valley to the South Bay.
As COVID-19 spread throughout Los Angeles, stay at home orders were issued to reduce the spread of the virus, but how were the unhoused supposed to follow these orders, especially in crowded spaces under a bridge or on a sidewalk? It became clear that the homeless crisis could become an even bigger health catastrophe.
Following guidance from the Los Angeles County Departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Health Services, the California Community Foundation (CCF) swiftly increased funding to numerous nonprofits, so they could rapidly mobilize their operations to target the immediate needs of the emerging health crisis. “CCF was able to track our different response efforts and align funding in very critical ways,” says Megan McClaire, acting chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
It became clear that quarantining was the most immediate and effective tool to curb transmission. Given their ongoing collaboration with the County and their operations and logistics skill set, Brilliant Corners became an essential partner in managing the set-up of five quarantine sites for the unhoused throughout the County in a matter of weeks.
Brilliant Corners contracted with medical professionals to staff isolation beds and secure food delivery, personal protective equipment and critical supplies. They even ensured children had games and books to occupy their time. “We pivoted our business to figure out how we could get whatever was needed out into the community as quickly as possible, going from knowing nothing about a topic to deploying a solution within 48 hours,” Danielle recalls.
The next major piece was testing capacity, especially in homeless encampments. The County, led by the Department of Health Services’ Housing for Health with the operational support from Brilliant Corners and other nonprofit providers, mobilized medical professionals to join homeless outreach teams to conduct testing and wellness checks.
One of those was Harbor Community Health Centers, a community health clinic in the South Bay. With a fast response grant from CCF’s COVID-19 LA County Relief Fund, Harbor was able to ramp up outreach to that region’s community of people experiencing homelessness.
“At the start of the pandemic, we realized we couldn’t treat persons experiencing homelessness through telemedicine, but we could actually just walk out to them, identify their needs and treat them where they were at,” says Jennifer Chen, nurse practitioner and director of clinical operations at Harbor Community Health Centers.
For four days a week, Jennifer joins a homeless street outreach team, in coordination with the County, to conduct testing and wellness checks underneath freeway underpasses or at tent encampments.
She has had a few individuals test positive for COVID-19 but most did not show symptoms and did not want to go to a quarantine site. So, Jennifer and her team delivered self-isolation tents that were set up away from the encampment and provided a week’s worth of food and water.
She also informed others in the encampment about the positive cases, gave out masks and provided information on how they could stay safe.
Jennifer believes her team’s efforts helped to prevent a larger spread in the homeless community and the County’s data would support that. “We know the investments made helped to protect this population,” says Megan of L.A. County Department of Public Health. “The return on investment is that the positivity rate for people experiencing homelessness was 2.5% compared to 10% for the general population in the spring of 2020.”
As the pandemic brought together an unprecedented amount of resources and collaboration, it also revealed deep inequities in who gets safe and affordable housing, who can access basic health care and the lack of a safety net for our most vulnerable residents.
“There’s been a tremendous public health response to the pandemic, but also an acknowledgment around housing and health justice, which are a part of social justice,” Danielle of Brilliant Corners reflects. “We’re being challenged, and we need to be challenged on how to do our work differently and whose voices are heard.”