Empire editorial: A temporary solution

Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Juneau’s homeless and sick won’t be left out in the cold, at least not this month.

The Assembly’s 6-1 vote Monday approving $3,600 in emergency funds to provide hotel-room beds for the homeless was a quick and effective response, but it’s still a short-term solution to an issue that could have long-term socioeconomic implications.

Leaving the homeless and ailing to sleep in the streets shouldn’t be an option, and thankfully compassionate Assembly members realized such. But aside from addressing the current half-dozen or so flu cases among homeless individuals, city officials and social service agencies need to look beyond just the upcoming flu season. Any number of ailments or infectious diseases could inflict Juneau’s homeless population at any time, and unless treated and given somewhere to “wait it out” the situation could become a public health hazard.  

Assembly member Jonathan Anderson said Monday, “We don’t want to run into a situation that people who are ill are turned away and end up very sick or even dying on the streets.”

Indeed we don’t, but there doesn’t appear to be many options at the moment. Bartlett Regional Hospital doesn’t operate as a hotel, and patients needing bed rest are sent home for just that. Hospital officials say the flu doesn’t require inpatient treatment, and that the hospital doesn’t have enough empty beds available. The Glory Hole operates on a shoestring budget and lacks the facilities and space to quarantine sick patrons. So, renting hotel rooms is the best option at the moment, it seems, but when the emergency funds run out, all parties involved will be back to square one.

Using local hotels as flu quarantine zones will prevent contagious individuals from using the library or other public places to get away from the rain and cold to rest, but doing so for an extended period of time may lead to stigmas associated with those hotels. And let’s not forget Juneau’s economy revolves around tourism. Visitors will have concerns about booking a room, not knowing if their room previously housed a flu patient. Hotel staff and cleaning services aren’t necessarily trained or able to disinfect a room the same way hospital staff would.

In short, there are plenty of flaws in this plan, too.

The best solution might be for the city to work with Bartlett Regional Hospital, the Front Street Clinic and social services groups to develop and staff a shelter. Such a proposal would take time, however, and offers little help now. Nonprofit groups, including the Red Cross, United Way, St. Vincent DePaul and the Glory Hole, have collaborated with city and hospital officials to find a solution. We hope they keep the discussions moving forward in doing the responsible, humane thing: provide the homeless somewhere to recover.

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