The message wasn’t lost on Daniel Gonzalez.
Early in the pandemic, one of the first things Imperial County did to ward off the virus was close the public bathrooms and, later, public cooling centers. In this sprawling Southern California desert, where summer brings blistering triple-digit heat, that lack of access could amount to a death sentence for people without shelter.
People like Gonzalez, homeless the past two years, were simply not a priority.
Months into the coronavirus shutdown, Gonzalez, 47, felt lonely. Calexico’s quiet downtown had emptied out. July highs were topping 110, and it was uncomfortable wearing a mask in the swelter. But not having a place to rinse off or wash up, that was just a hazard.
Standing outside a closed restroom in Calexico’s Border Friendship Park, looking out over the complex of metal bars and security equipment that marks the U.S.-Mexico border, he waited for dinner. Every night at 7:30 p.m., volunteers assembled at the park to serve a hot meal to anyone in need. A few weeks before, pressured by the organizers, the county started dropping off hand-washing stations right before the meal, only to whisk them away as soon as it was served.
Gonzalez lined up. At least it was something.
This was supposed to be the year that California finally did something about its epidemic of homelessness. On Feb. 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom stood before lawmakers in the state Capitol, and delivered an unprecedented State of the State address devoted entirely to the homelessness crisis.
California is home to one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population, a grim distinction painfully visible not only on city sidewalks, but also along the state’s freeways and farm levees, in its urban parks and suburban strip malls.
Past administrations had mostly ignored the problem, Newsom said, but he’d be different. “It’s a disgrace that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is falling so far behind to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” he told the crowd.
But even as Newsom spoke, a different epidemic was advancing silently across the state. Exactly one month later, he would order a far-reaching statewide shutdown, asking every person in California not working in an essential industry to shelter at home in an effort to stave off COVID-19.
It was a complicated ask for the more than 150,000 Californians without a home.
For two weeks in March, Newsom’s top homelessness advisor, Jason Elliott, gathered with academics, service providers and county representatives at the emergency operations center just outside Sacramento to confront the menace that COVID-19 presented for tens of thousands of people living outside, often without access to clean water or basic hygiene.
They pored over data