'Everybody Is Crammed In.' Scenes From A Homeless Shelter During A Pandemic

Interior of the Bethel AME winter homeless shelter in late March, 2020. (Courtesy Paul Klees)

It's the task of Los Angeles' homeless shelters to offer as many people as possible a place to sleep at night. As many as 12,000 men and women currently stay in them, on cots lined up in rows.

But in the time of COVID-19, that setup means social distancing is near impossible. And thousands of vulnerable people are living in situations where the risk of infection is high.

Until Tuesday, Paul Klees, 53, was one of them. For the past month and a half, he slept each night inside Bethel AME Men's Winter Shelter in South Los Angeles on a cot in a church multi-purpose room with almost 100 other men. Klees says there was virtually no personal space; each cot was next to another with just a few inches between them.

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"Everybody is crammed in, crammed in next to each other," he said by phone at the end of March. "And you know, it's out of an abundance of an offer to help that we're full."

Klees said conditions inside the shelter were ripe to spread illness. He said there was no soap, no sanitizer, and irregular access to shower facilities. Even more concerning, he said the residents were asked to leave the shelter during the daytime, something corroborated by another resident, Jeffery Sharp.

"We're sent out during the day to interact with the community, and we come back in the evening," said Sharp, 39. "The conditions are almost a petri dish."

Sharp also said that there was no way to wash your hands before eating. Shelter residents would line up, get food from a window, and return to their cots.

"There's no eating area. You just eat on the cots, six inches apart from another person," said Sharp.

'NOBODY'S HEARING FROM US'

Klees reached out to me by email at the end of March, saying he and others were afraid of the dangerous conditions, as well as alleged abuse by members of the shelter's staff. It was one of hundreds of emails he sent about the shelter to elected officials, their staff, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), raising the alarm about the poor conditions.

"There's no communication pipeline for feedback. So nobody's hearing from us, and nobody is trying to reach us," said Klees. "So we feel like we've been set adrift. And that's the staff as well."

Interior of the Bethel AME homeless shelter in late March, 2020. (Courtesy Paul Klees)

Both Klees and Sharp said they had talked with shelter staff who were as concerned as they were about the potential for COVID-19 to spread quickly inside.

Multiple attempts were made by phone and email to reach the shelter's nonprofit operator and staff at its host church, but without success.

"I think everybody realizes that this is a not ideal situation by any means," said Ruth Schwartz, who manages the nonprofit Shelter Partnership, which distributes supplies to the region's shelter system. "Shelters are, many of them, fairly dense. And right now it's hard to identify additional space to de-densify the existing shelters."


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SHELTER CLOSED DOWN

But now the conditions are no longer an issue. The shelter Klees and Sharp had been living in was shut down on Wednesday, as part of LAHSA's winter shelter program, which traditionally closes shelters by the beginning of April.

LAHSA, however, had announced on March 19 that it was extending the winter shelter program for "all 15 shelter sites across Los Angeles County" to help with the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the announcement, this particular winter shelter did shut down, eliminating 100 shelter spaces for homeless men.

LAHSA has not yet responded to an LAist request for more information as to why this specific shelter had closed.

For his part, Klees has since been able to rent a hotel room where he's staying for the time being.

Sharp isn't yet sure where he's going to go.