Volunteer Idalia Borquez hands out meals in Calexico's Border Friendship Park, April 21, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

In the first week of April, three weeks after a pandemic was declared and as dozens of COVID-19 cases were being reported in Imperial County, Jessica Solorio’s charity encountered 72 homeless residents.

Forty-one of them told her outreach team they had never heard of the virus.

“That just added to the already big demand of taking out food bags and clothing,” said Solorio, head of Spread the Love Charity in Brawley. “We had to also implement a plan on educating them on COVID.”

Why this matters

Before the coronavirus pandemic and the economic turmoil it has caused, Imperial County struggled with one of the state’s highest unemployment’s rates and a lack of lodging for its more than 1,400 homeless residents.

Solorio and other nonprofit leaders who serve some of the most vulnerable people in Imperial County say they’re seeing fewer volunteers and struggling with their own financial uncertainty because of the novel coronavirus — all while demand for their services remains high. Those problems now join those that already existed in the county of 181,000 people — high unemployment, no long-term homeless shelter for men and a homeless population that sharply grew in recent years.

The $528,000 the county was recently awarded in emergency state funding will help, with most of the money going to cover motel vouchers and isolation housing. But nonprofit officials say that won’t protect all of the region’s more than 1,400 homeless residents from COVID-19.

Maribel Padilla, co-founder of the Brown Bag Coalition in Calexico, says the region’s local government leaders aren’t doing enough.

A man walks away from a hand-washing station in Calexico’s Border Friendship Park, April 21, 2020. The portable stations are brought to the park every evening during the Brown Bag Coalition’s dinner handouts. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

While others in the state began a month ago moving the homeless into hotel rooms and other shelter options, Padilla said she fought the county just to get two mobile hand-washing stations for the park near the U.S.-Mexico border where her group serves daily meals to the poor.

She also wants an effort made to test the homeless for COVID-19.

County spokeswoman Linsey Dale told inewsource the Public Health Department isn’t conducting testing of any kind and is unaware of any coordinated testing effort for the homeless.

“The local hospitals and clinics are continuing to use the same prioritization and screening process for all individuals regardless of housing status,” Dale said.

Padilla said she’s trying to work with a local health care center to do tests at the park before her group serves meals.

While Padilla said her nonprofit still has sponsors covering the cost of food, fewer people are volunteering to help serve meals. But she said that won’t stop her from feeding Calexico’s homeless — “my people,” she calls them.

Carlos Hernandez, a 55-year-old Calexico native who became homeless after a family dispute four months ago, was one of more than 30 people at Border Friendship Park Tuesday night to get a meal from the Brown Bag Coalition.

“It’s been kind of hard because of everything happening,” Hernandez said. “Everything closed, everything. Thank God the people right here come and feed us, because it’s hard. Being homeless is hard.”

Imperial County has seen its homeless numbers spike in recent years, in part because of increased efforts to count the homeless at what’s known as Slab City, a former military base that’s now an off-the-grid community.

In 2017, the county’s homeless population increased 204%, jumping from 380 to 1,154. In 2018, the number grew to nearly 1,500 homeless residents, and last year it was 1,413.

Jesse Reyes sits in Calexico’s Border Friendship Park during the Brown Bag Coalition’s nightly dinner, April 21, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

One staggering number: All but about 200 of them are unsheltered.

Nonprofit leaders say because annual counts are done on a single day, it’s likely not all homeless residents are included.

Ken Wuytens, head of the United Way of Imperial County, said he doesn’t expect the homeless population to shrink when this year’s numbers are finalized. And the region’s economy will likely take years to fully recover from the pandemic, he said.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic,” Wuytens said. “I’m just trying to be realistic about what we’re facing. And I’m sure there will be agencies and businesses that don’t survive this.”

A rural area with a largely agriculture-driven economy, Imperial County “struggles with socioeconomic issues as a result of lack of job opportunities in higher paying industries and low educational achievement,” a 2019 economic report said.

In March, the county reported an unemployment rate of 20.5% — the second highest in California and far higher than the state’s 5.6% rate. For February, the county’s rate was 17%.

‘Nowhere for the homeless to go’

As of Thursday, the county had 232 COVID-19 cases out of nearly 1,400 tests. Eight residents have died, many of whom public health officials have described as older with underlying health conditions.

Since April 10, a local health order has required residents to wear face coverings when going to public places such as grocery stores. Solorio said the county’s homeless have limited options under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order. There are two women’s shelters and one for men.

“There’s nowhere for the homeless to go,” Solorio said. “So it’s super difficult right now just to even educate them, get them clean, teach them sheltering in place when there’s nowhere for them to go or to get away from the pandemic.”

Bruno Suarez, a volunteer at Brown Bag Coalition, said the group has been trying to help the homeless with their hygiene.

Peter Sanchez, a Navy veteran from Calexico, cleans his hands with wipes handed out by the Brown Bag Coalition in Calexico’s Border Friendship Park, April 21, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“With the whole pandemic going on, it’s really hard to get them the (personal protective equipment),” Suarez said, “or having a shower daily, wash your hands. That’s one of the challenges I’ve seen.”

Dale said the county hasn’t yet received its $528,000 state grant, part of the $100 million in emergency homelessness funding that went to all of California’s 58 counties. More than $7 million was given to San Diego city and county, where at least 8,100 residents are homeless.

Imperial County has been working with the state Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council, Dale said, to obtain other money to help the homeless and the nonprofits that serve them.

About $476,000 of the state grant will go toward temporary housing, she said. The rest is expected to go for sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment for the homeless.

Photos: COVID-19 poses new threat to Imperial County’s homeless

The county has moved more than 120 homeless people into motels, Dale said, and another 100 are on a waitlist. Because of the high demand, priority is being given to individuals who test positive for COVID-19, and those 65 and older or with pre-existing health conditions.

Solorio said her nonprofit has received help from the county during the pandemic. Under a contract the county Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday, the Spread the Love Charity also will get funding to buy three hand-washing stations and a four-stall mobile shower.

“They sent us an abundance of bottled water and hand sanitizer and bars of soap,” Solorio said. “So I know that the funding is going to be used for homelessness. But $500,000 is not going to go a long way — especially when it comes to motel rooms. That takes a huge chunk of money.”

She worries an outbreak will hit the county’s homeless population — particularly in Slab City. More than half of the county’s unsheltered residents stay there, according to a 2017 homeless report.

“If they get it out there, it’s going to be horrible,” Solorio said.

Nonprofits press on with fewer volunteers, donations

The Brown Bag Coalition has served dinner to as many as 65 people on recent nights. Padilla said the meals are continuing despite challenges brought by the pandemic.

Some of those who regularly helped serve meals have stopped volunteering. They fear exposing relatives to the coronavirus, she said. The group also quit serving hot food, opting to provide meals in bags and takeout containers to limit interactions and risks of contracting COVID-19.

Solorio said Spread the Love Charity, which has 1,500 clients, also has fewer volunteers because of the pandemic. Its budget has been hit, too.

A man pulls out a mask given to him by volunteers in Calexico’s Border Friendship Park, April 21, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

In March, she said, the group received 39% of its usual donation amount. So far in April, it’s only received 9%. Two of its biggest annual fundraising events weren’t held because of the pandemic.

“We’re struggling,” Solorio said. “When I say we’re struggling — we’re struggling.”

Nonprofits in the San Diego region have reported similar challenges. A survey done last month by the Nonprofit Institute at the University of San
Diego found that despite an increased demand for services, the majority of organizations have been forced to reduce or shut down programs.

The nonprofits said declines in donations, potential layoffs and delayed grant funding were ranked among their most urgent challenges.

Wuytens, who’s one of two staffers at the United Way of Imperial County, said eight of its 17 member agencies are closed or have reduced operations.

He’s been working with the Salvation Army on meal distribution during the pandemic, including transferring food that would have gone to the United Way’s annual Easter drive and applying for emergency funding to keep the meals coming.

He said his own organization relies on payroll deductions — and “obviously, if businesses are closed up, then we’re not getting payroll donations.”
People’s favorite charities, he said, are facing tough times during the pandemic. “If they have the ability, now would be a great time to donate to their local or favorite charities,” Wuytens said.


Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...

Zoë Meyers is a photo and video journalist at inewsource. Zoë loves working as a visual journalist because it gives her the privilege of witnessing moments in people's personal lives and in our community that can enhance our understanding of important stories. When she's not behind the camera, Zoë...