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Dec 1, 10:15 PM EST

San Diego opens giant tent to contain hepatitis outbreak


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AP Photo/Gregory Bull

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San Diego opens giant tent to contain hepatitis outbreak

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SAN DIEGO (AP) -- San Diego on Friday opened the first of three industrial-sized tents to house the homeless as part of the city's efforts to contain a hepatitis A outbreak stemming from the deplorable conditions people were living in on the streets.

About 20 people made their way to a bunk bed Friday in the tent that will house 350 single men and women. Two other giant tents will open later this month - one for families and one for veterans. The tents will house a total of 700 people.

The city turned to tents to get people off the streets and contain a hepatitis A outbreak that has killed 20 people in the past year, marking the worst epidemic of its kind in the US in 20 years. The virus lives in feces.

"There's going to be a marked different in what we see on the streets today and what we see at this time next year," said Bob McElroy of the Alpha Project, the nonprofit group that will operate the tent that opened Friday.

More than 3,000 people have been living on the streets in the city. The city opened a temporary campground in October where 200 people lived in tents. They will now be moved into the new giant tents.

Verna Vasbinder, 47, was among the first to move from the campground. She rolled in with her little black dog, Lucy Lui, on the seat of her walker with a cardboard sign hanging off the back that read: "Don't Touch the Dog! The Human Bites!"

She plopped down on her bunk bed and already felt lucky to be finally under a roof.

"My bones were hurting very badly sleeping on the ground," said Vasbinder, who has been homeless for six years. "And the dew, moisture in the morning. Whew! I'm out of the cold, off the ground and I'll be feeling better in a few days. All I need is to rest in a bed."

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who welcomed her to the tent, said the goal is to move 65 percent of the occupants into permanent housing. The city had to divert $6.5 million budgeted for permanent housing to fund the operation of the tents for seven months.

The tents will provide an array of services from mental health care to housing navigators.

But the city still faces an acute housing shortage for the poor. Faulconer has earmarked more than $80 million in funds to address the problem.

Gemma Librado lives a block away from the tent that opened Friday. She said she is glad to see the streets being cleaned up but she worries it may attract more homeless. Last Sunday, a homeless man high on drugs and with a bleeding hand ran into her apartment when she opened the door and locked himself in the bathroom. She and her 6-year-old son ran out and called police. The man broke things in her bathroom, left bloodstains on the floor and scared her.

"If this makes things more orderly than I support this," she said. "But I'm worried. I don't want this to bring in more homeless to the area and people using drugs. There are families with children around here."

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