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Homeless Outreach Workers in Standoff Over COVID Safety

A homeless man camps out in Times Square during the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
A homeless man camps out in Times Square during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, March 24, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A local poverty-relief nonprofit has threatened to fire two outreach workers to the homeless, according to the employees, who say they are staying off the streets to protect their clients, households and themselves from COVID-19.

The staff members at Goddard Riverside Community Center asked last month to work from home for the duration of the pandemic — including on days when they are assigned to patrol Manhattan streets seeking homeless individuals to aid.

One of the workers seeking to work full time from home has asthma and the other lives with someone who is immunocompromised. Both serve on a team assigned to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Those workers and their colleagues are concerned about bringing the disease home — and being possible vectors for the vulnerable clients they serve.

The organization’s executive director, Roderick Jones, confirmed that two of their coworkers had fallen ill, as New York City coronavirus cases climbed.

Jones said the organization has already reduced the number of hours the workers are out with homeless people on the streets from 35 hours a week to 10, in conjunction with the Department of Homeless Services — and can’t go any further.

“We can’t exempt our workforce from doing the essential functions of the job,” he said.

Emails obtained by THE CITY show that Goddard Riverside allowed the two individuals to self-isolate for two weeks beginning March 26, following separate requests from each.

Goddard Riverside Executive Director Dr. Roderick Jones.
Goddard Riverside Executive Director Dr. Roderick Jones.
Screengrab/GoddardRiverside/Facebook

Under that arrangement, they’ve been filing paperwork three days a week from home, while taking personal time off to cover the hours they’d been scheduled to patrol in the field.

But if the two employees don’t report back to the office by April 14, they have been informed, they will be terminated, according to multiple current and former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Jones defended the decision, asserting he was contractually obligated to fire workers who are “unable or unwilling to fulfill obligations of the job,” centered on direct aid to homeless individuals.

One of the workers under threat said that losing the job, in service to an estimated 3,500 who live on the streets, will ultimately harm the homeless individuals they work with.

“It’ll erode their trust in the organization and potentially destabilize clients who are so vulnerable already,” the worker said. “We know their stories. We know their cases. We’re their lifeline.”

Up to 50 Contacts

The workers say their job aiding the street homeless, involving dozens of close-up personal contacts daily, brings risks not only to themselves and their families but also the homeless individuals they are paid to aid.

Goddard gives its outreach workers gloves and one surgical mask per shift, picked up at the office each time, in addition to five masks to hand out to symptomatic clients they may encounter, according to the employees.

One outreach worker recalled encountering a client on the street who was a cancer survivor and desperate for a bed and protective equipment. The worker gave her a mask anyway, even though she did not have any symptoms.

“I technically wasn’t supposed to, but she was terrified,” the worker said.

In addition to getting clients to and through appointments with service agencies and helping them apply for public benefits, the outreach workers are required to keep up with canvassing, making constant efforts to contact new people living on the streets.

In a single two-hour period, multiple workers said, they can be in contact with up to 40 or 50 different people.

“Forget the optics of laying people off in the middle of a pandemic,” one current employee said. “Wouldn’t you want, in this time especially, to keep employees who have the experience and have built trust and relationships with the clients?”

‘A Tough Situation’

Jones says that the reduced street outreach schedule has already stretched the 50-person outreach staff to its limits and that any further reductions would threaten its ability to provide the support homeless individuals need in the crisis.

Moreover, he said, further cutbacks would jeopardize its funding under its $33 million city contract.

“I think all of us are working really hard in a really hard situation to meet the needs of our employees and the people who depend on us,” Jones said. “It’s a tough situation to be in.”

As of Sunday, at least 23 homeless New Yorkers had died from coronavirus, while the total number identified by the Department of Homeless Services as infected was 421. Of those, 371 live in shelters, 19 live on the streets, and 31 were referred to DHS by hospitals and other entities.

Two Goddard Riverside employees are either COVID-19-positive or symptomatic of the illness, and are recovering at home, according to Jones.

A third worker resigned last week following management’s decision to not let vulnerable workers self-isolate, multiple employees told THE CITY. An additional position is vacant.

The workers who want to work from home remain adamant in their fight. “I’m planning on working from home full-time,” said one. “There’s no way I’m going to the office, period.”

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