A hepatitis A outbreak that started in the San Diego homeless community has spread north to Santa Cruz, killing 17 people and infecting over 500. But Sacramento has a plan to stop the deadly disease in its tracks.
The disease attacks the liver, and is commonly spread by people who contaminate their surroundings after failing to follow the single most publicized health directive known to modern humans: Wash your hands after defecating.
But health experts say this outbreak is unusual for the U.S. because it was caused by variables usually found in third-world countries: homelessness and a corresponding lack of basic hygiene and sanitation.
Rancho Cordova Mayor Donald Terry is concerned because the homeless population in the Sacramento metro area is up 31 percent over two years ago, and the number of homeless people not living in shelters is up by 85 percent.
“People aren’t making any more money, yet home prices are just still going through the roof,” said Terry. “We better figure out a way to fix, or yeah, it’s going to get worse.”
Sacramento politicians are concerned because a 2012 United Nations report blasted Mayor Kevin Johnson for a persistent “lack of access to adequate water and sanitation.”
“This hep A outbreak is a wake-up call that we need safe and clean public facilities,” said Sacramento City Councilman Jeff Harris, who spearheaded a single $100,000 portable bathroom last year that was abandoned after six months because operations were on track to cost almost $350,000.
“The bottom line is I want to walk from City Hall to Golden 1 Center and not smell feces and urine,” said Harris. “The only way I see that happening is with paid attendants in safe and clean facilities, and the only people who would take that job are the homeless or former felons.”
Councilman Steve Hansen expanded on those comments. “I think we’re trying to thoughtfully go through this,” he said. “When we do provide free public facilities, they get destroyed. When we close facilities, excrement and urine end up on the streets.”
“We always celebrate marginal improvements, and I’m sick of it.” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “For God’s sake, California is the sixth largest economy in the world! We’re going to end our third-world problems once and for all.”
Steinberg said his comprehensive plan builds on concepts found in the recent state law making California a “sanctuary state.”
“How can we end our third-world problems unless we protect millions of residents who actually come from the third world?” Steinberg asked, rhetorically. “How can we provide affordable housing without first causing the affordable housing crisis? And how can we expect the homeless to clean up the public spaces they inhabit unless we make them public employees?”
Although the plan is still under review, the mayor said Sacramento will eventually provide food, clothing, healthcare and homes for the homeless, and pay them union wages to keep public toilets clean.
And, since state law already mandates employee handwashing signs in every workplace bathroom, the hepatitis A crisis will simply go away.