Colleges can shift to online learning. Teams can cancel sporting events. Restaurants might close. But the services on which homeless New Yorkers depend—like soup kitchens, pantries and shelters—can’t exactly ask their clients to make other arrangements during the Coronavirus crisis.
That’s forcing the people who run such services to take different steps to protect their staff and a uniquely vulnerable service population.
“People who live on the streets or are otherwise in poverty—as we all know, the data indicate the prevalence of those kinds of health issues are much higher,” says Christina Hanson, executive director of Part of the Solution (POTS), a service agency in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Diabetes, immune deficiencies and heart trouble are among the risk factors that homeless people could be more likely to display. What’s more, Hanson notes, “It’s not clear that if our population got sick there’d be resources for them to get better.”
Thinning the crowd
POTS operates a community dining room and a food pantry and offers showers, benefit case-management help and mail services to homeless people. Hanson estimates that 700 to 800 people might come through their building on Webster Avenue on a given day.
“Our goal is to create as much social distance as possible,” she says. Any staff that can work remotely has been sent home, and case management is being done by phone as much as it can be. Instead of a supermarket-style pantry where visitors can pick the items to take, clients are being handed pre-packaged bags. People who come to the dining room for lunch get food to go, although those who really don’t have a place to take the meal can remain there to eat. “As far as showers and mail go, we’re just trying to keep the number of people in the building low,” Hanson says.
This is the trend for service providers around the city, according to Craig Hughes with the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center. “We’ve started to see community clinics tightening their services—turning community/open meals into ‘to-go’ plates, narrowing services to the most basic needs only,” he says. “We are expecting that this narrowing of services will likely expand across the city.”
Some outreach organizations are taking a similar approach. Josh Dean, co-founder of the advocacy organization human.nyc, says they have stopped doing in-person outreach and are trying to stay in touch with their street-homeless contacts via email and text. “Given that we focus on advocacy rather than direct service, we’re taking the precaution to reduce unnecessary contact as we recognize that our street homeless neighbors are vulnerable and we want to minimize any potential risks to them,” Dean says.
Focus on adult shelters
There are no reports yet of any cases of COVID-19 within the city’s homeless shelter system, which had 58,172 residents as of Thursday night. Advocates said the Department of Homeless Services was reacting about as nimbly as could be expected given the speed and uncertainty of the crisis.
“We are working in partnership with the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to design protocols that keep homeless New Yorkers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidance is constantly being updated and refined as we learn more,” Homeless Services United executive director Catherine Trapani told City Limits. “Service providers are working to identify anyone who may be experiencing symptoms and quickly and safely get them medically evaluated to ensure that no other persons are exposed.”
The greatest concerns are about the single adult shelters, which are congregate. Advocates and providers have asked DHS to put at-risk shelter residents—people with asthma or bad immune systems, or who are over 50—in hotel rooms, and to extend mealtimes and allow access to beds during the day so that people aren’t congregating in common areas.
The precautions are necessary but they will have consequences. According to Hanson, doing more case management on the phone means, “it will be much harder to offer those services and to build trust with clients.” One of her case-management workers recently won benefits for a client after an eight-month process. Any changes that slow down that work will trigger cascading delays.
That’s why Hughes hopes the city will halt the work assignments and sanctions that many recipients of public assistance—homeless or otherwise—face, and the in-person appointments and hearings that the welfare system often requires. “To the best of our knowledge the mandatory savings requirements continue in effect in singles shelters, which is utterly ridiculous and potentially harmful in a crisis like this,” Hughes says.
That critique reflects a larger truth, advocates say: The vulnerabilities that are seen as unacceptable risks during the Coronavirus crisis were actually just as problematic before the outbreak, and will be afterward.
“Housing is health care. The threat of novel coronavirus exposes the vulnerability of living without the privacy and security of a home. The recommendation to self-quarantine is impossible for homeless New Yorkers. Frequent hand-washing is also difficult when access to restrooms is unpredictable. That is why it is crucial that New York ensures that everyone has a real home,” said Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless, in a statement.
Be aware, not afraid
At POTS, disease-control efforts are complicated by the likelihood that clients are not up to date on the gravity of the public-health situation. “I would say awareness is lower in this population,” Hanson says, “and maybe concern as well.” After all, homeless people live constantly in a high-risk environment. Late last week, Hanson says, POTS staffers were explaining to clients the steps being taken to defend against Coronavirus. “At least one guy was like, ‘What’s Coronavirus?’”
Trapani says non-homeless New Yorkers also need to elevate their awareness, and recognize that the risk Coronavirus poses to the homeless population is greater than the risk homeless New Yorkers pose to the public health.
“Given the heightened concern for our homeless neighbors from persons in the media, I just want to urge all New Yorkers to lead with compassion and remember everyone is deserving of dignity and respect including those living on the streets and in shelters,” she says. “I hope that we can all remember to be kind.”