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Posts Tagged ‘COVID’

Remembering the Unique Needs of Homeless People During the Pandemic

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Sean Cononie of COSAC Foundation and the Homeless Voice newspaper wants communities throughout the United States to not forget about people experiencing homelessness in the face of the COVID-related tragedy around us. He is especially concerned that there is no strategy for the distribution of vaccinations within the homeless community among community leaders.

The population of people experiencing homelessness is diverse and may need different strategies to best serve their individual needs. For example, two dose vaccines pose a challenge for people who live unsheltered on the streets in cars or encampments, as they often are forced to move and therefore cannot always be found by outreach workers, and therefore might never receive the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Cononie is encouraging communities to wait a couple of weeks and use the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it is approved for use. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be administered in just one dose, plus, it is easier to transport to those on the streets, and does not require the extreme cold storage that the other two vaccines require.  (Please note, NCH encourages all to access whatever vaccine is available to them.)

Picture of Sean Cononie
Sean Cononie

Cononie has worked on the streets for decades in South Florida and currently travels the streets of Broward County assisting those largely forgotten by the rest of society.  He has set up a firehouse model of emergency responders who go out on the street around the clock to provide personal protective gear, masks, water, and COVID tests. He can help house individuals if they are interested and can work to quarantine individuals who are recovering. 

Unfortunately, Cononie, a board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, reports that the response in South Florida to the pandemic has been scatter shot at best.  He has seen mistreatment of those experiencing homelessness at some of the local hospital emergency rooms, and Cononie said some of the hospitals have given up on serving homeless people altogether.  Many people who are homeless report that hospitals will just give them a blanket, some food and then send them on their way saying, “Come back if it gets worse.”

Some cities have been successful in housing vulnerable and quarantined unhoused folks in hotel rooms, or other temporary housing. Cononie believes that his local health care system needs to find safe accommodation for those without housing to recuperate even if their symptoms are mild.  The risk of them passing the virus to a large number of people at meal programs or shelters is significant and has deadly consequences for the fragile population served by the homeless continuum.

In South Florida, as in many communities, systems have either forgotten the population or have set up bureaucracies that make it impossible for those without an address to participate in programs that would keep them safe. The religious community has stepped up to help with meals and other basics, but the need is continually increasing as the pandemic has worn on. Broward County has a relatively high unemployment rate of 7.3%, and 14.6% of the Southern Florida population do not have health insurance, both of which can lead to increases in homelessness. Cononie is committed to bringing resources to people often forgotten to get them through this global health crisis.

Back at NCH, and report out from Cleveland

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

By Brian Davis

In January, I took on the Director of Grassroots Organizing role, formerly held by Michael Stoops, and am so honored to be working again for the oldest homeless civil rights organization in America. I was a board member of NCH from 2001 until 2017.

I previously worked 23 years for a small advocacy organization causing trouble in Cleveland, OH. I oversaw the homeless memorials, Stand Downs and constructed programs to better serve those without a permanent residence. I registered thousands of people to vote and sued the State of Ohio to protect the voting rights of low income people without identification. I also regularly organized lawsuits against the City of Cleveland when they attempted to make it illegal to be without a home. Every month I was the guy who faced people living in shelters and on the streets and had to answer their criticism for what a stupid system we the people had constructed for those who were hungry or struggling with housing. I worked for 23 years attempting to amplify those voices so they were heard at the County administration building, City Hall, and at hearing rooms in the Rayburn Office Building of Congress. 

Report out from Cleveland:

According to the US Census, Cleveland once again became the poorest city in the United States in 2020. One third of the total population of poor people in Ohio live in Cleveland even though the city on the shores of Lake Erie only represents 3% of the total population of the Buckeye state. The County that Cleveland sits in runs most welfare programs, and funds the addiction services as well as the mental health system, but that often means that people experiencing homelessness are not treated as individuals. They are instead told to conform to the one-size-fits-all approach to receiving help or do it alone. 

For decades the city had been one of the few cities in the United States that offered guaranteed access to shelter for anyone who wanted it. This became moot in the 2010s when the conditions in the shelter had deteriorated to the point that the reputation of the shelter was so bad many found that sleeping on the street was more attractive than staying in a shelter. In addition, HUD’s policy of funding permanent supportive housing over everything else closed most of the family shelters in Cleveland. The waiting list for housing was years long and the waiting list for a decent shelter bed was also excessively long.  Before the pandemic there were 22,000 to 24,000 evictions a year, and a severe lack of beds for women fleeing domestic violence, and no specific programs for young people. So, in one of the poorest cities in America, the safety net for homeless people was in tatters then a global pandemic hit.  

The congregate living shelters in Cleveland were all big facilities housing between 100 and 400 people in the same space. Back in March 2020, these shelters were ordered to reduce the population by half and a few facilities decided to close because they could no longer staff the facility during the pandemic. The County decided to either take over shelters, or begin to fund nights at a couple of hotels operated mostly by some sketchy landlords. They started moving people into hotels, which were operated similarly to the transitional shelters that changes in HUD funding priorities had nearly completely eliminated from the social service system. There were hotels for women, one for men, a mixed gender hotel and a Covid positive hotel. The hotel that the County paid to put families up in was actually a really upscale facility, and provided a degree of respect to low income people that we are not accustomed to seeing in this mean city. 

The hotel rooms have been a lifesaver, and advocates hope that they continue past the pandemic. Advocates and service providers in Cleveland have really worked to keep people safe, especially severely mentally ill people who during a normal winter would be sleeping on the streets. Doctors and nurses from the local public hospital have taken it upon themselves to regularly check in on homeless people now spread out in hotels and shelters across the city.  There hasn’t been much organized governmental coordination in response to the pandemic, but community groups have stepped forward to take the lead. 

There are still holes and problems come up every day during a pandemic especially since it has dragged on for such a long period of time. There are not enough tests for the staff or residents –  hotels are not a priority for testing since they are not considered “congregate living facilities,” even though people have to gather for meals and pass each other in halls. There are way too many older folks being discharged from residential facilities, hoping that people will just survive alone in hotel rooms until a vaccine is available to them. While there are far fewer campsites, the number of people who ride around on public transportation all night is way up, and this has spread out the population in a bigger geographic area.  Staff are completely stressed out and afraid, and there are far fewer volunteers to make meals and care for the population. 

One good thing is that because of there being fewer unsheltered folks, the number of homeless deaths has come down. Turns out if you offer someone a space in a private room instead of just a bed in a dorm with 100 other guys, they are going to take it, and it is going to keep them safe!

Santa Fe has not had any Homeless Deaths Due to COVID

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

The city of Santa Fe New Mexico owned a defunct college and so when the pandemic hit the community in March 2020, city leaders moved those without homes into the empty dormitories. The local government also contracted with local motels to be able a total of 300 people with both of these resources. The city government initially ran operations, but eventually management of the facilities was taken over by a private non-profit that already worked with those experiencing homelessness.  This quick response was funded largely through federal CARES act assistance.

New Mexico Continuum of Care Meeting

This dormitory model has stopped outbreaks within the shelters that many other cities have seen. The cities of Albuquerque and Gallup have both faced outbreaks of COVID within congregate shelters. In fact, the city of Gallup had a single individual infect the local shelter which then traveled to the Navajo nation reservation and was devastating to the fragile population living in the surrounding areas.

Dormitories and hotels have been used across the country to successfully keep vulnerable and unhoused folks safe from this deadly pathogen. Santa Fe has a comprehensive continuum including permanent supportive housing and, during the pandemic, has worked to reduce the number of people in congregate living facilities, which has helped move many into safe places to quarantine. But advocates report that they are still seeing steady streams of individuals from all age groups entering the homeless system. 

The local poverty rate is 12.4% overall, with 25% of the children living below the poverty level.  The state estimates that 12.3% of the population are behind on their rent at least one month since the pandemic started.  The area has a higher than average unemployment rate of 13%, and higher than the national average of people without health insurance at 14.8%. Especially during the pandemic economic downturn, these factors have contributed to many falling into homelessness. 

Advocates in Santa Fe report that service agencies have really stepped up to help in the face of this global health emergency. Many Continuum of Care (i.e. HUD-funded) agencies have donated staff time to help keep the emergency facilities operational and to open overflow facilities when necessary. Service workers have been putting in extra hours to staff the dormitory in order to keep people safe. 

Santa Fe is not as hostile to homeless people as some other cities in the state. Local unhoused folks have not had the conflicts with law enforcement that folks in other communities have faced. City officials are largely following CDC guidelines not to disrupt encampments during the pandemic, keeping contact with encampments to a minimum. Local advocates have worked to keep the community informed during the pandemic and to keep those without housing as safe as possible.  

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