Tuberculosis outbreak strikes LA: Health hazards plague homeless

John Pekcan / Daily Titan

Thaddeus Davis, 37, waits for food at the Fullerton Armory Shelter. The homeless population is more susceptible to tuberculosis due to poor living conditions. (John Pekcan / Daily Titan)

Los Angeles is facing an outbreak of tuberculosis (TB) among its homeless population and with the construction of a homeless shelter in Fullerton, questions are being raised about the potential health hazards in Orange County.

TB is an infectious disease that primarily affects the lungs and is easily spread when infected people cough, sneeze, speak or sing, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Homeless people are often afflicted with TB due to their close living quarters, substance abuse and tendency to share clothing or food with one another, according to the CDC.

Public health officials are searching for more than 4,500 people who may have been exposed to TB, but the mobile, transient lifestyle makes it hard to pinpoint and treat those who are infected, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

Some residents are worried about the dangers of housing homeless individuals in the city and the various concerns that come along with the shelter.

“There are a lot of young people that might very well be involved in the helping out of this venture … that can be kind of scary,” said Andrea Acosta, a Fullerton resident.

Although tuberculosis rates have dropped over the past decade, the CDC shows a disproportionate amount of homeless people with the TB versus non-homeless with TB.

The gap in these numbers is so high, the CDC estimates that of the 10,500 TB cases reported in 2011, 9,814 were of homeless status.

Initially, concerns arose regarding the rate of crime increasing with the opening of the shelter.

Advocates for the cessation of homelessness are looking forward to the shelter’s opening and believe that it would benefit not only those involved, but the community at large as well.

“Obviously, I feel that there’s a need. We have to facilitate services for these people … we have to provide for everyone who’s in need,” said Fred Joyner, a representative from the OC Homeless Advocacy Group.

Despite the belief that breathing in the air near an infected person could cause a healthy individual to become infected with TB, both the CDC and campus student health services center negate that.

TB is preventable, so long as people are taking the normal steps to stay germ-free (i.e. washing hands, covering coughs, sneezing into tissues), according to the CDC website.

The only possible cause for infection is remaining in close quarters with an individual who has TB for an extended period of time. If this happens to be the case, the CDC suggests the healthy party covers their nose and mouth with a protective mask to curb possible infection. Acosta, like many other Fullerton residents said that it is up to the city and county planners to provide preventative measures to help “screen” the residents at the shelter in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.

“I would like to see the city take those kind of precautions. I mean, I can’t imagine they would just throw anybody in there without really knowing,” Acosta said.

Joyner agrees, saying that the city could release public service announcements to get the public aware and educate themselves on what changes the shelter could bring the surrounding area.

The $3.2 million homeless shelter would be housed in a closed Linder’s Furniture site on the 300 block of State College Boulevard.

The proposed shelter construction came up after the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a comprehensive 10-year homelessness plan last January.

The year-round shelter would replace the county’s current seasonal Fullerton Armory Shelter.

“There’s health risks with everything in our community, whether it’s environmental, whether it’s disease-related, whether it’s just the common flu,” Joyner said.

About Rebecca Lopez

Rebecca is a staff writer on the Daily Titan. Serving as a staff writer of the Daily Titan is a requirement for all Journalism majors.