Portable hand washing station
A new portable hand washing station in the East Village to combat hepatitis A ourbreak. Courtesy OnScene.TV

A City Council committee Wednesday unanimously directed the City Attorney’s office to draft an emergency declaration over a lack of shelter space, which has exacerbated a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A among San Diego’s homeless population.

A declaration regarding shelters is already in place. Councilman Chris Ward, who chairs the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness, said a successor statement would be stronger and provide more benefits for the city.

“Generally what this item is about is what we can do to potentially access additional funding with state or federal assistance … what we can do to expedite permitting, reduce regulatory barriers and red tape — so these facilities or other city-owned facilities can open up even faster — and what can be done to expedite contracting with service providers and vendors.”

The City Attorney’s office said an updated declaration would also provide legal protections to certain projects meant to alleviate homelessness, and allow for certain regulations — such as building codes — to be set aside if they hamper progress toward a solution.

The declaration, if later approved by the full City Council, comes amid an outbreak of hepatitis A, which has had a heavy impact on the homeless. County health officials said 421 people became ill and 16 have died.

Councilman David Alvarez proposed the declaration nearly two weeks ago, calling for immediate action because of the fatalities. In response, the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the declaration was unnecessary, since the city was taking steps to combat the illness.

Faulconer and Ward announced before the meeting a plan to open three large tent shelters in San Diego.

On Tuesday, the city began a pilot program to keep 14 public restrooms in Balboa Park open 24 hours a day. Under direction from county health, the city on Monday began washing down streets and sidewalks in the East Village with a bleach formula.

Around 40 hand-washing stations have been set up around the city — concentrated in areas where the homeless congregate.

In January’s annual tally of the area’s transient population, 5,619 homeless individuals were counted in the city of San Diego, a 10.3 percent increase from last year. Of those, 3,231 were living on the streets.

 —City News Service