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Last weekend, the first homeless person in a city-run shelter tested positive for coronavirus. As of Friday, there were seven at four separate shelters.
Meanwhile, homeless people who stay on sidewalks and subways rather than go to often dangerous shelters are overwhelming city-supported drop-in centers that offer meals and showers at a time when staying clean is crucial.
The dual dynamic, advocates for the homeless say, adds to a growing health crisis — with vulnerable people living in close quarters in the era of social distancing while those in the streets struggle more than ever to get help in an all but shut down city.
The city is now scrambling on everything from opening new drop-in centers to creating quarantine spaces at shelters to buying thermometers to screen clients before they’re sent to a facility.
But time is tight in the race to help a fragile population, many of them already dealing with mental health and addiction challenges, in the midst of a global pandemic.
“This is extremely urgent and dire,” said Giselle Routhier, director of outreach for the Coalition for the Homeless. “People don’t have access to basic supplies to live.”
‘We’ve Asked for Help’
Since the first positive reading for coronavirus in New York City March 1, the city’s parks department has shut down most bathrooms. Some soup kitchens have stopped allowing people to shower there while other nonprofit providers that serve homeless people have simply closed up shop.
Homeless people are now flooding the five borough-based drop-in centers nonprofits operate for the city.
Visitor numbers at The Bronx’s drop-in center on Barretto Street in Hunts Point have spiked to about 100 people a day, well above the spring usual, said a worker there who requested anonymity.
“We’ve asked for some help, but in the meantime, we’re taking the proper precautions,” he said, noting the latex gloves he and his coworker were wearing, and the container of disinfectant wipes they kept on the counter.
Juanita Garland, who said she had been staying for 16 months at a shelter also located at the Barretto Street site, was hoping to get placed in an apartment of her own soon.
“A lot of people have come here since the coronavirus, but either yesterday or the day before, they told them they could only stay during the day,” said Garland, 55. “Most people who stay here aren’t too worried about the virus. They have so many other things to worry about instead.”
A ‘Super Crowded’ Space
Josh Dean, director of Human NYC, a group that aids homeless people, delivered boxes of socks to the Staten Island and Bronx drop-in centers Tuesday.
In The Bronx, “It was super crowded. People were absolutely not able to perform social distancing. There was not sufficient space for that. People were making physical contact with each other.”
In Staten Island, he said, homeless people filled rows of chairs almost touching in the common area of the center. “I was bumping into people trying to get through,” he said. “It was nuts.”
Routhier of the Coalition praised the nonprofits running the drop-in centers. But, she added, “They’re basically unable to practice social distancing because there’s so much of a surge. So we need extra space.”
Anat Gerstein, a spokesperson for BronxWorks, the nonprofit that runs the Barretto Street site, said the operators are watching for anyone who shows up with symptoms. Workers isolate them in a separate room and call 911 for transport to nearby hospitals.
“Bronxworks is doing everything they can to meet people’s needs because that is why they exist,” she said.
Isaac McGinn, a city Department of Homeless Services spokesperson, said the agency is issuing an “emergency procurement” to add drop-in center capacity — and is “asking not-for-profit providers to join us in this urgent mission to bring new sites online quickly and efficiently in response to this evolving situation.”
A ‘Constantly Evolving Situation’
DHS also is struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus within the city’s shelters.
On Friday, DHS had only 100 quarantine beds in the entire system and was scrambling to get up to 200. More than 57,000 homeless people were staying in city-run shelters as of March 18.
That lack of isolation space became more evident amid last week’s jump in residents testing positive for COVID-19.
As of Friday, three shelter residents remained hospitalized. Two more were in a DHS quarantine/isolation location, including one who had been released from a hospital in stable condition. Two others are confined to their units in separate family shelters.
But many more residents are affected when one person tests positive. Most of those infected so far were staying in dorm rooms.
After the first resident tested positive last weekend, for instance, DHS placed her eight roommates in isolation and monitored them for symptoms.
DHS will not disclose the names of the shelters where those who’ve tested positive reside.
But at the huge Bellevue Men’s Shelter on E. 30th Street in Midtown, dorm rooms typically house between eight and 12 people. Some take up to 20 who are sleeping on beds a few feet apart.
McGinn wouldn’t reveal how many roommates of those who’ve tested positive are in quarantine, but said they’re being monitored by staff for any sign of symptoms.
“We are evaluating how to modify our approach to services and programs to increase social distancing and limit gatherings,” he said.
On Wednesday, DHS’ policy was not to take the temperature of new arrivals at their intake centers. On Friday, McGinn said that’s about to change.
The city is scrambling to procure more thermometers, along with increased nursing staff at intake sites.
“As cases rise across the country and the city, we anticipate cases will rise amongst the New Yorkers experiencing homelessness who we serve,” McGinn said. “Following the lead of our city’s health experts, we are working together across agencies to monitor the constantly evolving situation and rapidly respond in support of our most vulnerable.”
‘Protecting the Most Vulnerable’
On Wednesday, DHS began allowing residents to stay in their rooms during much of the day. Previously, the residents were told to leave for most of the day, and they ended up crowding into common spaces such as TV rooms.
The change should have happened weeks ago, said Alphonso Syville, 45, a resident at one Wards Island shelter. He shared a photo of a TV room filled with clients he said he took early this week.
“It’s a small common area,” he said. “They had like 30 guys in there.”
On Friday, Catherine Trapani, director of Homeless Services United, called on DHS to connect drop-in centers with nearby hotels so clients can be placed temporarily in rooms and crowds don’t build up inside common areas.
“Give them a place where they can wash up and be safe,” she said. “In a pandemic I think we need to be a little bit more creative.”
And City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and General Welfare Committee Chairperson Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn) on Friday wrote to Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanding he set up hand-washing stations and temporary showers for homeless people.
They also urged him to find more public spaces for temporary shelters — including now empty schools and community centers — and carve out more space within existing shelters for quarantine.
“Before this current crisis began, we were already in the midst of a homelessness crisis,” they wrote. “As the number of positive cases increases significantly every day, we need to ensure that we are protecting the most vulnerable in our city.”
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