Local businesses must help serve homeless population amid pandemic

CITY AFFAIRS: Local businesses have unique capacity, must do more to house, feed city’s homeless population

Illustration of a vacant hotel across the street from a homeless encampment
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Public health leaders and elected officials have implored the public with one message during this pandemic: Stay home. But for many of the most vulnerable people across the country, they cannot even do that — they are homeless.

On April 30, Alameda County and the city of Berkeley canceled a recently approved million-dollar contract with La Quinta Inn to provide 113 beds for the city’s homeless population. The city terminated the contract in part over allegations that the hotel insufficiently cooperated, and in the meantime, other city resources for unhoused residents have remained available or been expanded. But in the second month of statewide shelter-in-place orders, the city’s failure to house its most vulnerable residents leaves their health — and the health of all city residents — at serious risk.

The city government, however, cannot be solely responsible for the well-being of the homeless community. Local businesses such as hotels have unique capacity in times of crisis to serve their community. While private individuals should strive to stay home and socially distance, businesses should shoulder some of the public health burden by partnering with the city to provide shelter for those who cannot otherwise stay indoors.

All businesses in food service and hospitality benefit from public investments, and they have a moral duty to participate in public solutions. In a time when social distancing guidelines have shuttered many businesses that depend on overnight travel and commerce as usual, hotels have unprecedented vacancies. Facing fixed costs they cannot defray, businesses such as La Quinta Inn, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, Hotel Shattuck Plaza and the Claremont Club & Spa should actively seek out contracts with the city to bolster public health and rescue their plunging revenues in the process.

Like hotels, restaurants could play a vital role in improving food security for the unhoused population. During normal operations, local businesses regularly donate food to Berkeley food banks, but typical sources of food and other basic necessities have evaporated as businesses close and residents obey shelter-in-place guidance. Here, too, the city could contract with local businesses to provide meals for the homeless and help ensure that an already food-insecure population is not further left to fend for itself.

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized $150 million to protect California’s unhoused population, yet even combined with Project Roomkey — the state effort to house homeless individuals — the government’s resources will not suffice in this crisis. With hundreds of thousands of unhoused residents in California, such funding will run out quickly, and businesses already prepared to serve their communities across the state are best positioned to implement urgent solutions with state funds. As COVID-19 spreads inexorably across the country, there is no time to lose in protecting those who cannot weather this crisis by simply staying home.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2020 opinion editor, Aidan Bassett.