Protecting the Homeless Called ‘Urgent Issue’ in Pandemic

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Los Angeles Street bridge over the Santa Ana Freeway, where tents are now allowed to stay up all day, photo by John Sequeira via Flickr.

The lack of stable shelter, the challenge of maintaining proper hygiene, and the inability to stockpile basic food supplies make homeless individuals especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.  According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, not enough is being done on the federal level to help, VOX News reports. 

Under the Coronavirus Relief Bill that passed Congress in early March, $8.3 billion dollars will be allocated to states to spend on hospitals, medical staffing, and treatment costs.

“We can’t keep entire communities healthy in the midst of a pandemic if any one of us are left without a home and sleeping on a sidewalk or in a shelter without an ability to slow or stop contagion,” Yentel said.

Local authorities in California, the state with the largest homeless population with an estimated 150,000 people living on the streets, are scrambling to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Los Angeles has suspended an ordinance requiring tents to come down at night and has lined up dozens of trailers to use as isolation shelters. A charitable group in San Francisco was passing out tents so people could use them to separate themselves from others. Both cities also are using recreational centers and other large, open indoor spaces to create emergency shelters that have more space between beds.

The virus has caused the death of one homeless individual in California so far, but authorities believe that without swift intervention, it’s only a matter of time before the virus sweeps through homeless encampments and gathering spots where people are in close proximity and can’t practice proper hygiene, like hand-washing, ” The Bulletin reports.  

In response, California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged on Wednesday that the first $150 million would be given to local governments to house and help the homeless.

The concentration of homeless individuals in several areas of a community can increase the chances of contagion.  

Joseph Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York Police Department sergeant, told The Bulletin that police have the authority to take a homeless individual into custody if they’re having severe respiratory problems, but refuse aid.

“They’re a threat to themselves and others at that point,” Giacalone said.

In California, disobeying health orders enforced by the police is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

But Gov. Newsom has said he is not worried about the homeless population resisting help, adding that the state has “the capacity to encourage people off the streets.”

“I think there’s a lot of mythology about resistance; I think it’s wildly overstated,” Newsom told reporters this week. “I’m not ratcheting up a mindset of enforcement police state.”

In New York City, social distancing for the homeless population is also a challenge. Vox News reports that there are at least 3,500 people sleeping on the streets and subways, and a 2018 report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that there were “402 homeless encampments in part of the Midtown Manhattan area alone.” 

The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

New York City reported its first death of a homeless man, in his 60s, Thursday morning. The city says there have been 39 homeless people who have been identified and diagnosed with the virus, ABC News details. 

In Pitkin County, Colorado, there are 13 presumptive positive cases in their homeless population as of Tuesday, according to VOX News. The area’s main homeless shelter has also “reached its capacity and is no longer taking in any new clients,” The Colorado Sun reports. 

In the midst of a lot of uncertainty, some communities are releasing detailed plans on how they’re helping the homeless population during this time. 

In Indiana, Steve Kerr, director of the development for Wheeler Mission, reported that their staff is screening people before coming in, taking their temperature, and asking about any potential symptoms of exposures to the virus, Indy Star reports

To follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s guidelines for social distancing, mealtimes are staggered to minimize contact, and “those in overflow space in the building’s gymnasium are being asked to sleep head-to-foot.” 

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS) released a “COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan” on Wednesday, which is also in accordance with the CDC guidelines, the Baltimore Fishbowl reports

The city of Baltimore set up “temporary social distancing shelters” for healthy homeless individuals, and the city also erected multiple sites where symptomatic homeless individuals can self-isolate while awaiting COVID-19 test results, the Baltimore Fishbowl explained. 

This is on top of screening the health of the homeless and providing much-needed food and hygiene products.  

“The primary function of government is to protect the health and well-being of its residents, especially children, older adults and residents experiencing homelessness,” Mayor Young said, as quoted by the Baltimore Fishbowl. “We must protect our homeless neighbors and mitigate their risk of infection the same way we do the rest of the city’s residents.” 

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report

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