02/25/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

That Cough Could Be Deadly, Especially If You're Homeless

It feels like a plot in a Michael Crichton novel, where a specific deadly strain of tuberculosis concentrated in a small neighborhood of a large metropolis wreaks havoc on thousands of people, especially those poor souls who are homeless.

I wish the scenario was simply fiction created by the mind of Crichton for entertainment. But it is not.

Since 2007, the 50-square block neighborhood in the eastern part of downtown Los Angeles, also infamously known as "skid row," has been struggling with a TB outbreak that has already killed 11 people and infected nearly 80, most who were homeless.

Last week, public health officials were in search of 4,500 people who may have been exposed to this deadly disease.

Homeless housing programs in the Los Angeles region, such as the ones I run, have been in high alert, desperately screening new people entering programs, creating "cough lists" of residents with even a slight chance of being infected, and sending people to the clinic especially during this critical flu season.

It is a scary time.

You would think America's pandemic of homelessness, with its people floundering on the streets, would be punishment enough. But no. A deadly epidemic has attacked the health of people living on Los Angeles' streets like some out-of-control terrorist.

You would also think America would rally support for these people who are homeless. They have become victims of disease, as well as prey to a devastating economy that has forced many to lose their housing.

But a health epidemic among a decades-old homeless population is not the same as supporting victims of a hurricane or earthquake. There are no groups of compassionate volunteers streaming into Southern California wanting to help find the 4,500 people who might be infected. No Red Cross campaigns to raise helpful revenue.

Instead, here in Los Angeles at least, the attention is more focused on local political races or the city's lackluster Lakers, even though the region just counted its homeless population last month.

I wonder what it would take to get this nation's attention directed toward helping its people who are homeless?

Definitely not the rampant baseball bat beatings of people who are homeless. This has been going on for years, without much outrage. Not heat waves where homeless persons die on the streets. Seems like this occurs every summer. And, I guess not health epidemics where nearly a dozen people have died.

Some people think the only way to awaken this country's compassion for people living on the streets is to make homelessness an economic issue. Society can save public funds by housing our homeless neighbors rather than waste dollars through hospitalization, emergency room visits, and other homeless services. It certainly makes sense.

Does a plot of ending homelessness consist of this country pulling itself out of a struggling economy by housing all of its homeless population make for a great Hollywood-ending?

Now, that might be good Crichton fiction.