When COVID-19 started spreading at Long Beach’s winter homeless shelter last week, residents say the facility put in place stringent rules that went beyond the advice of local health officials.
The outbreak began on March 14, and, as of Tuesday, eight cases had been reported at the 81-bed facility, according to Long Beach Health Officer Dr. Anissa Davis.
In response, Long Beach told the shelter’s operator to lean on some familiar COVID-19 protocols like isolating anyone who was ill, testing, masking and avoiding things like communal dining where the virus could more easily spread.
Health officials also advised the nonprofit operator First to Serve to limit who goes in and out of the facility, with the understanding that people might need to leave for work and other obligations, Davis said.
A spokesperson for Long Beach said it was the city’s understanding “that First To Serve followed these guidelines,” but residents said the nonprofit went beyond the city’s recommendations.
Vernon Benjamin, who is staying at the facility with his mother, said he and others were told that if they left for any reason, they wouldn’t be allowed back in—even if they’d tested negative for the virus.
“Guests are being asked to remain on site until quarantine ends,” First to Serve’s shelter manager said in a letter Benjamin provided to the Long Beach Post.
“We understand that this may create conflicts with responsibilities outside of our shelter, such as work schedules,” it continued.
Davis said organizations are allowed to take more stringent measures than the Health Department recommends.
“You have the right to do whatever you want at your facility as long as it’s not illegal or not infringing on anyone’s human rights,” she said.
But Benjamin said the policy put him and his mother at risk of losing the jobs they were relying on to get back on their feet while the temporary winter shelter was available.
“I was supposed to work during this whole time,” he said, but First to Serve’s rules forced him to choose between making a paycheck and having a stable place to sleep and get three meals a day.
First to Serve’s chief operating officer Cheri Weeks repeatedly declined to comment, saying city officials were well aware of what they were doing.
Since contacting the media, Benjamin said he and other people staying at the facility have been allowed to leave for work if they test negative for COVID, but other movement is still restricted.
Chelsey Magallon, a spokesperson for the city, said First to Serve “has confirmed that no clients were denied reentry and they worked to provide accommodations for people to leave for appointments or scheduled work.”
The quarantine was originally scheduled to end Wednesday, March 22, according to Benjamin, but he said First to Serve has informed residents it’s since been extended to an unknown date.