Wellness-check app helps outreach workers survey SoCal's homeless, limit spread of COVID-19

The pandemic is surging and exposing a crisis hidden in plain sight: how do you stop the spread of COVID-19 among Southern California's sprawling homeless population? Now, there's an app helping outreach workers.

The workers win over the trust of the homeless population with food and other supplies, building a rapport before asking the questions they may not want to answer

"You guys aren't feeling sick? No fever or symptoms -- nothing like that?" asked one worker.

It isn't easy to care for the unsheltered. The sheer number of homeless in Los Angeles is the first hurdle -- not to mention they are a mobile community. And in a world with COVID-19, where the prevention of its spread is critical, outreach workers can't do it alone.

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"Early on, I knew we didn't have the tools to track and do all of this and knew that the need was great because our county is so big, the need is so big," said Colleen Murphy with LAHSA, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. "Together, with a partner a medical doctor at the Department of Health Services, we put our heads together and said we really need this."

The solution: LAHSA came up with a tool called the "HOTspot" app. Since March, it has been guiding homeless engagement team members through the process of asking the right questions at the right time.

"It gives them a few prompts on how to keep themselves safe, please wear a mask, please be six feet apart from the person you're talking to and then it asks questions," Murphy said.

"It's going to ask us things like if they have any health conditions and we're going to mark which conditions they have," said Kelly Doyle, Homeless Engagement team member. "If they do tell us that they have certain health conditions, then they can be more vulnerable to COVID complications, should they get the virus, and that's going to tell us OK, we need to refer them to Project Room Key to keep them safe."

"If I see them again, I can click on them again and do another survey, because every time we see them we're going to check in on them and ask them if they have any symptoms," Doyle said.

The team of outreach workers was in South El Monte this week. If they come across anyone who is sick, they'll offer housing, a COVID-19 test, or even call 911.

If the offer for housing is refused, the team urges them to shelter in place -- wherever they call home -- to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The interaction is documented for a follow-up visit.

"I do want viewers to know that there are hundreds of people out there while everyone is sheltering in place," Murphy said. "Our staff are out there every day trying to support people in the trenches doing this important work, and I couldn't be more proud of them."
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