That Cough Could Be Deadly, Especially If You’re Homeless

By | Feb 26, 2013

It sounds like the plot of a Michael Crichton novel. A deadly strain of tuberculosis infects thousands of people in a large metropolis, the vast majority of whom are homeless individuals living on the streets.

I wish this scenario was a work of fiction. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Since 2007, the 50-square-block neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles known as “Skid Row” has been struggling with a TB outbreak that has infected nearly 80 people and killed 11, most whom are homeless. 

Last week, public health officials were searching for more than 4,500 people who were probably exposed to the deadly disease, in hopes of providing testing and treatment.

Housing programs in the Los Angeles region, such as the ones I run, have been on high alert. New individuals entering programs are screened for TB, staff maintain “cough lists” of residents who have even a slight chance of being infected, and those deemed to be at risk are immediately sent to local clinics, especially during flu season.

It’s a scary time to be homeless in Los Angeles.

As if struggling to survive on the streets wasn’t scary enough, now a deadly epidemic is attacking the health of people who are homeless. Living on the street is more dangerous than ever.

You would think the United States would rally support for these suffering people. They are not only victims of a devastating economy that has caused many to lose their homes, they are victims of a disease that is running rampant through the homeless population.

But fighting an epidemic among people experiencing homelessness is not viewed the same way as supporting victims of a hurricane or an earthquake. No Red Cross campaigns will raise money to help. No groups of compassionate people will volunteer to help locate the 4,500 people who have been exposed.

Instead, Angelenos’ attention is focused on local political races or the city’s lackluster basketball team. The region just counted the local homeless population in January, but few residents even bothered to take notice.

What will it take to get their attention?

The baseball bat beatings of people who are homeless didn’t do it. Neither did the heat waves that left people dying on the streets. Apparently, a health epidemic that lasts for years, kills nearly a dozen people, and exposes thousands more won’t do it either.

Some people think the best way to invoke the nation’s concern is to make ending homelessness about economics. There is certainly a sound argument to be made. By housing our homeless neighbors, society could save significant public funds that are currently going toward hospitalization costs, emergency room visits, and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Moving people off the streets makes economic sense.

Would a story about housing the homeless population and connecting them with healthcare make for as good a novel as a deadly epidemic sweeping the streets? Maybe not.

But it would certainly make a better reality.


Photo by: Franck Blais