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How can New York City protect the homeless from coronavirus?

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Advocates push for more protection for the city’s homeless population as COVID-19 cases rise in shelters

Homelessness At Highest Level In NYC Since Great Depression Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

While some New Yorkers are stocking up on food and staying in their homes during the novel coronavirus pandemic, there are thousands of homeless individuals who are still sleeping on the city’s streets or in shelters.

And as the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises throughout New York City, so too does the number of homeless New Yorkers who are diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Cases have already been identified in 66 shelter locations, and four homeless individuals have died, according to the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

“What we’re seeing continues to track the trends across our city, state, and country—with more testing taking place, we’re effectively identifying more positives, which gives us the ability to immediately connect each individual to the care they need, whether in hospital or in isolation,” says Isaac McGinn, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Social Services.

City agencies like the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have issued guidances for shelter providers—which, in December 2019, housed 62,590 homeless individuals every night—on how to manage the crisis, including specific steps on maintaining clean spaces, communicating with residents, protecting staff, and screening visitors for respiratory symptoms.

But sources tell Curbed that residents of city shelters have found that facilities are not being adequately cleaned. “Social distancing is not being practiced, there are sometimes 20 or more crowding in the dining room area every night,” Bernard Ward, a member of the nonprofit VOCAL-NY who was recently staying at a city-run homeless shelter in Brooklyn, said during a recent press conference for the organization.

Advocates for those experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, are worried about exposure in the city’s congregate shelters, which house several people in open dorm-style rooms. (According to DHS, there are 100 of these congregate locations in the city for single adults, with an average of eight to 12 beds per room.)

Some of those advocacy groups, including Picture the Homeless and Human.nyc, have asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to take clear, specific steps to protect the homeless for the duration of the outbreak, including providing hand-washing stations, hygiene kits, food, portable toilets, and tents for individuals on the streets; ending law enforcement programs that target homeless individuals (such as the NYPD’s Subway Diversion Program); and housing individuals in empty HPD Housing Connect apartments and unoccupied supportive housing units.

“Homeless people are human beings: they are our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers,” an open letter from those groups reads. “Their lives are not disposable and their needs must be addressed with the same urgency and compassion as those who have housing.”

Elected officials including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have so far supported the nonprofit groups’s requests: “Homelessness has long been a problem in our city and is now further complicated by the coronavirus,” Johnson said in a statement. “These New Yorkers need help to better protect themselves from the infection and that means bold measures like outdoor hand washing stations and more beds to socially distance those living in shelters.”

Specific recommendations for shelters to keep residents safe during the pandemic include providing written materials, trainings, and videos about spreading the disease; openly displaying “Cover Your Cough” signs in common areas; thoroughly cleaning frequently touched surfaces like door knobs, sleeping areas, bathrooms, and telephones; making sure staff members stay at home if they are sick; and not allowing visitors with respiratory symptoms to access their facilities.

But Ward says he had to step in to keep the shelter he was staying in clean. “I’ve also been mopping [and] cleaning, on my part, the hallway, the dorms, and the dining area, because only two out of three maintenance staff [are] doing the work,” he says. “No one is acting like they’re concerned about the risk of getting this virus.”

For the more than 3,000 New Yorkers sleeping on the streets and subways, the situation is even more dire. Those individuals often rely on soup kitchens for meals, and public places like libraries or restaurants to charge their phones or to use restrooms. Now, most if not all of those are shuttered.

The city runs five drop-in centers, which offer showers, meals, and other services, but those are becoming increasingly crowded. Though individuals on the streets are encouraged to go into shelters by outreach workers and police officers, “[they’re] scared of going into the shelter because they are scared of getting infected, [but] they’ve also lost all the resources that are out there,” says Craig Hughes, a social work supervisor at the Safety Net Project.

Hughes blames the city for not adequately preparing resources for those who are likely to be most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The people that are going to be most hurt … are not the people who are running to the Hamptons or running to Beacon,” he says. “The people who are most hurt by that are people who don’t have options, people on the street, who survive through a kind of shoestring set of resources that are available.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued its own guidance on how cities can protect their homeless residents. One of those recommendations includes not clearing “encampments” or places where unsheltered homeless individuals remain, unless there are individual housing units where they can isolate available to them. But, according to advocates and a report from The City, hospitals have been sending homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19 but don’t need intensive medical care to shelters, even as DHS struggles with a limited number of quarantine beds.

Other cities have found solutions to house their homeless residents during the pandemic: Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city would turn 42 recreation centers into temporary housing with 6,000 shelter beds for homeless individuals. Meanwhile, San Francisco officials are looking for empty hotel rooms to house the city’s homeless residents for the duration of the crisis.

So far, DHS has said that outreach workers have been instructed on a new screening process to identify homeless individuals who present respiratory symptoms and might need medical attention. According to DHS, outreach workers have done around 9,000 engagements with individuals on the street so far; referring them to healthcare and transporting some to hospitals, while in the shelter system, 140 individuals are currently in isolation units.

Former NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and CEO of the city’s largest shelter provider Win, says New Yorkers should keep in mind the importance of helping one another and stay connected during this crisis.

“We’re being advised to isolate, and poverty and homelessness is a disease of isolation,” she says. “We are very mindful at Win about what we can do to appropriately distance based on CDC guidance, but also, how we can keep a sense of connection—because homeless people feel every single day like they are ‘other’. [We] don’t want that to escalate; that type of escalation, particularly for people dealing with addiction issues, is very life-threatening.”