LOS ANGELES — Walking through the Gower encampment in Hollywood, Shauna Bookless appears to be right at home.
She knows almost everyone there despite being an outsider. More importantly, she knows exactly how to talk to them.
"If I don't know their name, I definitely know their faces," she said.
That ease stems from a decade she spent walking in their shoes, living in her car and battling addiction. But then, Bookless turned her life around, becoming a substance abuse specialist for a nonprofit called The People Concern.
Since then, she's been showing up at the Gower encampment almost every day, trying to help in any way she can.
"There are people who are inherently distrustful of anybody who's not in the encampment," she said, "so sometimes building that rapport takes time."
But as the omicron variant sweeps through Los Angeles, time is running out. It is why Bookless and her fellow volunteers are going tent to tent to try and convince people to roll up their sleeves.
“In the beginning of COVID, we were seeing low numbers and we attributed that to them being outdoors. But with omicron, it’s starting to ramp up because it’s so highly contagious,” she said.
Richard Gerro has been living at the Gower encampment for the last year. He said he never imagined he'd end up there, not in a million years.
"I have a new-found respect for what I at one time called 'homeless people,'" he said. "To walk around all night trying to find somewhere to keep warm, all the while your stomach is growling because you're starving, there is no other feeling in the world like it."
He said he'd gotten the COVID vaccine during a recent hospital visit and had no intention of getting a booster. But Bookless wasn't deterred. After 15 minutes of prodding, Gerro came around.
A quick check revealed Gerro was, in fact, unvaccinated. The shot he got at the hospital was for the flu.
"Who knows what would have happened to him had he been walking around under the impression that he was vaccinated?" Bookless said. "We're sending him out into the world a little safer."