LOS ANGELES – It looks like any holiday weekend: a fleet of motor homes filling the lot at Dockweiler State Beach, a popular destination for RVers.
But in this case, there are no happy families, smoking barbecues or coolers filled with beer and soft drinks. Rather, the units have a far more somber purpose: a place to quarantine people suspected of exposure to the coronavirus who either need to be separated from high-risk family members or who have no place else to go.
The recreational vehicle or RV – trailers and motor homes – may be a symbol of America’s love of the open road and the pleasure of getting away. But in recent months, this state has been putting them to work to solve serious social problems – first as a temporary solution to the burgeoning homeless problem and now as part of the war against COVID-19.
The motor homes parked at Dockweiler, a stretch of asphalt for RVs where the din of jets taking off from Los Angeles International Airport can drown out the roar of the surf, were set up as an emergency measure by Los Angeles County.
“We need places where people can be safely isolated from the public and even from their families,” said County Supervisor Janice Hahn in a statement. “We are using the Dockweiler RV Park for this purpose and we are actively identifying more sites like it for quarantine and isolation housing across the county.”
The beach location is only the start. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that the state is obtaining 1,309 travel trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and private companies to house the homeless to try to protect them from COVID-19. The trailers are being deployed to different cities around the state under a $50 million program that also includes hotel vouchers.
“People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” Newsom said in a statement. “California is deploying massive resources to get these vulnerable residents safely into shelter.”
While the RV industry is built around leisure, motor homes and trailers have long had a serious side, whether it has been serving as a police command post during an emergency or as mobile offices at construction sites. Hundreds of trailers served as temporary homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“During times of disaster, state and local agencies have used RVs to aid as local command centers, portable offices, temporary housing and other critical uses,” said RV Industry Association President Craig Kirby in a statement.
In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the industry group has pledged to donate 20 RVs for use where they are needed most to fight the virus. It is also offering to provide an additional 100 RVs below market cost.
Besides California, other states are drawing RVs into the coronavirus fight. In Louisiana, 89 RVs were purchased by the state police to deal with the coronavirus crisis. In Texas, one dealer says he has 400 to different cities to be used as temporary housing for caregivers and first responders, said Monika Geraci, spokeswoman for the association.
Besides housing those under quarantine or with milder symptoms, RVs can be used for housing medical personnel or for laboratory work to free up space in hospitals, according to Mike Happe, CEO of Winnebago Industries, a major RV maker.
RVs were already starting to play a role in housing the homeless in California before the coronavirus surfaced.
With 20 travel trailers provided by the state of California – left over from housing firefighters battling the state’s giant brush blazes – Los Angeles County was able to transform two parking lots into housing for the homeless, complete with water and sewage hookups, in about a month each.
At about $300,000, each of the projects provides housing for about 40 people at a cost that’s less than half as expensive as a single unit in some of the apartment buildings that the city is building for the homeless.
The first, near the Watts section of Los Angeles, was created on a city-owned parking lot and has 24-hour security, a children’s playground and even a dog run. Most of the residents are families, many with young kids, said Va Lecia Adams Kellum, CEO of St. Joseph’s Center, a social-service agency that’s in charge of the housing.
Most of the families invited into the trailers were living in cars.
“We try to get people who are most in need to fill our trailers,” she said. It’s not permanent supportive housing, she said, but “I see this as an immediate, quick, innovative response.”
One of them recently went to Nicole Bradley-Bibb, her fiance, 9-year-old daughter and an infant son. The family had been living out of a Chrysler minivan. Having their own trailer in a parking lot fenced off from the street was a big improvement.
She said her daughter can attend the same school and now has a more stable life.
“It’s beautiful,” said Bradley-Bibb, 39, who had moved in the week before. With her own kitchen and a refrigerator, she could finally visit a supermarket for the first time in a year.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I didn’t even know what to buy. I literally spent 20 minutes in a grocery store.”
For now, it works.
“If this is sustainable long term,” she said, “it’s a good concept.”