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Baltimore to screen people staying in homeless shelters for coronavirus, give them space to isolate

To help control an outbreak of the new coronavirus among Baltimore’s homeless families, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young outlined an extensive plan Wednesday for screening people staying in emergency shelters and giving them space to spread out and isolate.

Young’s plan comes amid concerns the virus could spread widely through shelters and encampments, where people gather in large groups and frequently have chronic health conditions. Young said the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services will work in partnership with service providers and public and private agencies to execute the plan.

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“We must protect our homeless neighbors and mitigate their risk of infection the same way we do the rest of the city’s residents," Young said in a statement. "In most cases, this means providing them access for testing and space to self-isolate, if needed. Our homeless neighbors are a part of this city and if we don’t protect them we leave our city exposed to greater risk.”

The plan was well-received by Baltimore service providers, who they were encouraged by the scope of the city’s response.

Anyone entering one of the city’s emergency shelters is screened by the staff for symptoms of the virus. If they show symptoms, the shelter staff will reach out to a health care provider for a secondary screening over the phone. In the case of a positive screening, the person will receive a referral for official testing and be transported to an isolated site.

There have not been any confirmed cases or positive tests for coronavirus among those staying in city shelters, officials said.

The city also has put into place guidance for hospitals before they discharge someone experiencing homelessness. Under the protocol, hospital workers are to check on whether their patient has a home to return to. If he or she does not have a home, accommodations should be made for them depending on if they have tested positive or negative or if they’re waiting for results.

When a person is given an isolated place to stay, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services will remain in contact with them and assess their ongoing needs. In some cases, people will be given hotel rooms where they can recover or wait for their test results.

The mayor’s office also plans to activate another shelter that will allow for the recommended social distancing space between people. Officials continue to look for additional spaces to add to the shelter system, as emergency shelters are nearly filled to capacity.

For people who sleep outside, the city’s homeless outreach teams are distributing supplies, including water, toiletries and food.

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Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said Baltimore’s strategy is similar to ones deployed in places, such as Seattle, with large populations of unhoused people. While some details are still being sorted out, Johnson said the plan shows the city is taking the risk seriously and planning accordingly.

“One thing that’s clear to me is that these are large undertakings and the city will need state and federal resources,” Johnson said. “We haven’t heard a lot on the state level on a plan for the health needs of unhoused people throughout the state. It seems to be falling on the local jurisdictions.”

At Health Care for the Homeless, president Kevin Lindamood said the city is demonstrating strong leadership on the pandemic by putting in place steps to slow its spread to “the most vulnerable and medically fragile members of our community.” The city’s approach follows many best practices, such as spacing out people inside the shelters and asking hospital workers to ask people about their housing situation before they’re discharged.

“From our vantage point, every sector of the city has worked around the clock under challenging circumstances to stand up a system of identification, testing, transportation, and isolation for people experiencing homelessness — before the point of mass community spread,” he said.

Lindamood said to follow the city’s lead, state and federal leaders need to step up on behalf of the homelessness community so Baltimore and other communities have the resources needed to serve their vulnerable neighbors.

“So many partners in this plan are themselves treading water,” he said. "We face shrinking workforces and diminishing supplies. The vision and commitment are there. And we all need reinforcements to make this work.”

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