San Diego’s homeless population is being hit hardest by the recent hepatitis A outbreak that San Diego County declared a local health emergency on Sept. 1. But this won’t stop PLNU’s homeless ministries from going downtown to serve.
“It’d be the easier thing to do to just kind of cut off the ministry,” said Gabe Yap, the student director for homeless ministries. “It’s gonna be even easier for other people to kind of remove contact from the homeless completely. And I don’t think that’s gonna help anything. It’s not gonna help the outbreak, it’s not gonna help the homeless.”
Mayo Clinic reports hepatitis A is a “highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus.” It is “one of several types of the hepatitis viruses that cause inflammation and affect your liver’s ability to function.”
The hepatitis A outbreak has killed 15 people and hospitalized hundreds, the San Diego Union Tribune reports. Mayor Kevin Faulconer issued a news statement explaining actions that the city will take to fight the disease. These will include free vaccinations, hand washing stations distributed throughout the city, and street bleaching.
Dr. Pat Leslie, a sociology professor who has extensive experience with homeless programs and services, said that living conditions, limited access to restrooms and poor diet, the homeless population is at a much more significant risk of exposure to hepatitis A. The virus is transmitted person-to-person through poor sanitation.
“If you’re homeless and on the street and you need to use the restroom it’s not easy,” Leslie said. “If you need to find a shower, it’s not always easy. So maybe we think beyond the public and government sector and think well what can the business sector do, or churches? I think people look to city and county to take care of public issues because they are our public representatives, and really what we need in an epidemic or in a natural disaster is we need as many people as possible to be aware and take action.”
PLNU’s homeless ministries is seeing this epidemic as an opportunity to “serve all people with no barriers,” community ministries director Dana Hojsack said, “as God calls us to serve our sick neighbors, our lonely neighbors, our homeless neighbors, our hungry neighbors.”
Hojsack and Yap said that homeless ministries will be taking extra precautions this year when serving downtown because of the outbreak. They will train leaders in knowing and recognizing what the disease is and where people can get help if they are sick. They will also use non-alcoholic wipes before and after serving in order to block transmission. In addition, Leslie encourages students who serve to consider getting immunized and to spread awareness.
“I highly recommend against drive-by giving, in which you simply just drop things off to people rather than getting to know them,” said Leslie. “I highly recommend anything that builds relationships with the people you’re concerned about, including the churches, and relationships with people who have the power to make decisions.”
Building relationships and showing compassion are at the heart of homeless ministries.
“[Serving the homeless] is part of creating an environment and promoting a caring world,” said Lian Yap, a student leader of Wednesday night homeless outreach. “It’s part of giving back. It’s also part of helping those who otherwise can’t help themselves and that’s an experience everyone should have.”
For students who want to get involved, there is a homeless ministry Tuesday through Friday. Students can help with food prep or distributing food downtown. In addition, students can donate one meal a week from their meal plan to homeless ministries, in which Sodexo will give sack lunch supplies for every meal donated. Students have the opportunity to donate a meal through Friday, Sept. 14.
“I would say the biggest takeaway [from serving in homeless ministries] is that it’s a humbling experience, so you definitely come out of it being very humbled but also challenged,” said Gabe Yap. “I’ve always liked that part about homeless ministries is that it’s not always the easiest thing to do, but God doesn’t call us to do the easy things.”