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Danny Espada, who lives on the streets, spritzes his palms with hand sanitizers he spots on store shelves around Midtown.
“They can’t deny you on that part,” said Espada, who hits CVS and Duane Reade stores to find the precious alcohol-based cleaners. “I’ve got to keep my hands nice and clean.”
Espada, 44, one of an estimated nearly 3,600 people living on subways and sidewalks, has struggled to stay clean, and away from crowds in shelters, as the number of coronavirus cases in the city increases.
Some stores and building atriums offer people free hand sanitizer near entrances.
But the city’s Department of Homeless Services discourages its outreach workers from giving people living on the streets any sanitary items, food or blankets because, officials say, that encourages them to stay out of shelters.
Homeless service advocates have long questioned that stance and are now pressing the de Blasio administration to switch its position to protect a vulnerable population from the spread of the coronavirus.
“The least we can do is give them hand sanitizer and clothes because of all times, now is the time to do it,” said Josh Dean, co-founder of Human.nyc, a homeless outreach organization.
Looking for Symptoms
The de Blasio administration defended the unofficial policy not long before cases of coronavirus hit the city.
“Our goal is to engage people with systems,” Molly Park, first deputy commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services, testified during a Feb. 28 City Council hearing.
“If we have somebody who is inappropriately dressed for the weather on the street, I think the real issue is how do we get that person inside,” she added. “And how do we solve the issue in the longer term.”
The department has ordered its staff to be on the lookout for any homeless people exhibiting flu-like symptoms, according to spokesperson Isaac McGinn. Those people will be connected to coronavirus testing at some of the city’s 11 public hospitals, he added.
Volunteer Services Shrink
Meanwhile, some soup kitchens and social service groups are cutting back or changing how they deliver food, according to several advocates for the homeless.
Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side has switched from a sitdown meal inside the church to “gate service” — and pared back some of the social service and legal assistance offered during those meals, according to Peter Malvan, a homeless advocate who lives on the streets.
“It causes undue isolation,” he said. “People are in the same spaces, but they are far apart.”
The church has taken the precautionary measures to make sure no one gets sick, said church staffer Serina Morrison, noting there’s also ongoing construction at the Lexington Avenue house of worship.
“A lot of our events are closing because we want to be safe,” she said.
The Midnight Run, an umbrella group of volunteers that offers homeless people living in the streets clothes and food, also has reduced services.
For example, a team of volunteers from St. John’s University bowed out Monday after the college announced it was suspending face-to-face instruction at all locations.
“This week, we are just out of it,” said Dale Williams, executive director of Midnight Run. “Last week, there were several groups that just couldn’t go. We are trying to get some other groups to cover.”
Meanwhile, St. James’ Church on the Upper East Side has changed its free Tuesday lunches from an indoor sitdown meal to distributing food outside, according to a church staffer.
‘People are Just Surviving’
Some living on the streets say they’re using part of their limited resources to keep up their hygiene as much as possible.
“I buy hand sanitizer from CVS,” said Mark Evans, as he sat on a chair near Penn Station. “I’ve got to do it.”
One homeless advocate hopes concerns over the virus push the de Blasio administration to change how it treats homeless people.
“There’s an age-old belief that if you provide these services they make the streets more comfortable,” said Craig Hughes, supervising social work at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.
“That kind of belief system is cruel. Realistically, people are just surviving.”
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