Where do the homeless go in a pandemic?

By Sydney Matthews

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. — FRIDAY, MARCH 13, 2020: HOPICS outreach nurse Kenya Smith, right, leaves food for for homeless client Davis Soto, left, taking care to stay at least six feet away during outreach in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 13, 2020. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

As the novel COVID-19 virus continues to spread worldwide, people across the globe are sheltering in place, limiting their outings only for essential tasks. Businesses and schools have closed, and services are limited indefinitely to emphasize social distancing and slow the spread of infection.

For many homeless people, however, quarantine is not an option.

“People are definitely hesitating to come in, but we’re still working to meet the needs of those we serve,” said an employee at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission who declined to give his name. The mission, founded in 1878, usually serves three meals a day to Philadelphia residents in need and provides shelter and transitional housing. 

According to a New York Times article published on March 10, “People who are experiencing homelessness are twice as susceptible to the virus than the general population.” Close quartered living conditions and a lack of access to hygiene and healthcare resources amplify the risk of exposure.

The Centers for Disease Control listed guidelines on its website for homeless service providers to follow decrease the rate of infections among the populations they serve. The guidelines recommend that shelters and facilities stockpile supplies, such as facial masks and create space to isolate any clients who display symptoms associated with coronavirus.

But many shelters are struggling to meet these guidelines as medical supplies are in short supply, and they don’t have the space to quarantine possibly infected clients. Varied responses across the country have underscored the lack of preparedness many cities face in assisting a vulnerable sect of the population.

Daniel Rasul Brown, exterior building maintenance for the convention center, works to clean up an area where people experiencing homelessness were moved out of an encampment near the Convention Center. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In Las Vegas, a parking lot was converted to a sleeping space after a 500-bed facility was shut down when a client tested positive for coronavirus. Homeless residents slept on mats outside in boxes drawn six feet apart in accordance with social distancing policies.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsome allocated $500 million for emergency funding during the pandemic, $150 million of which will go to homeless services.  The funds will be dispersed to local governments to house people in hotels and trailers for isolation and to assist shelters already operating.

Until a viable solution can be reached, however, homeless populations and the people who work to serve them, continue to be at risk. On March 31, the Los Angeles Times reported the first case of the virus on Skid Row. An outbreak among residents there could be potentially devastating, experts say. 

The Harm Reduction Coalition, “a national advocacy and capacity-building organization that works to promote the health and dignity of individuals and communities who are impacted by drug use,” released a set of guidelines for homeless residents who also deal with drug addiction. Because an outbreak in drug heavy neighborhoods like Kensington could easily turn to crisis, the NHRC urged residents to keep their supplies clean and not to share with others. It also advised people stock up on drugs, prescriptions and naloxone in case of emergencies. 

Back at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, workers continue to carry on as best they can given current circumstances. All volunteer shifts at the facility have been canceled. Walk-in guests for meals have been limited to take-out bags passed out at dinner. The shelter is not accepting anymore overnight guests for the time being. The mission has also halted accepting donations for the time being.

“We are still serving meals like always but with a few extra changes,” said Jeremy Montgomery, the CEO at SBRM. “Like the rest of the city of Philadelphia, we are being extra cautious and social distancing.”

The Holiday Inn Express in Center City Philadelphia will be turned into a coronavirus quarantine site for homeless people. HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

A video posted to SBRM’s social media shows a sparsely filled dining room. Clients were sitting one to a six-person table to keep space between each other.

Other facilities across Philadelphia have also amended their protocols in response to the pandemic. Broad Street Ministries, known for serving Philadelphia residents in a sit-down setting, has switched to packing bag lunches and distributing them to go. They also have installed portable handwashing stations outside of their facility.

At the Wesley House in Chester, a representative on the phone declined to say what measures had been taken at the facility other than they were no longer accepting referrals until further notice. Calls to the Salvation Army, also in Chester, and to Connect By Night and Media Fellowship House in Delaware County went unanswered. 

As of March 31, none of the Philadelphia residents who have tested positive for coronavirus are homeless. The city’s Office of Homeless services is working to prevent this as they distribute hygiene kits. 

More shelter beds will also be available to encourage people to come in and stay in. Additionally, they are working to find sites around the city that can serve as quarantine zones for those with nowhere else to go. 

According to an April 13 report by Johns Hopkins, 1,824,071 cases worldwide have been confirmed to have the virus and the worst is still predicted to be ahead. In the United States,  there have been nearly 570,000 confirmed cases and nearly 23,000 deaths.  Despite these numbers, many people are still on the frontlines serving their communities daily.

“We are not going to give up on our Christian mission,” Montgomery said. “We are going to continue to serve those in need and we are going to do so in a very safe, sanitized and secure way. We are not going to give up. Our doors remain open.”

Contact Sydney Matthews at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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