Precautions are being taken from shelters to encampments to prevent a rapid and deadly spread of the new coronavirus among Baltimore’s homeless community. But some say the protections do not go far enough, leaving these vulnerable men, women and children at extreme risk.
Often without access to soap and water — or the ability to keep physical distance from one another — people experiencing homelessness, as well as their advocates, fear many in this population will contract the virus, spread it widely and be in greater danger of death given the chronic diseases many already face.
City officials, shelter staff and health care providers say they understand the peril and are moving deliberately and expeditiously. Plans are in place to screen the homeless for symptoms, continue distributing hygiene items and create spaces for people to be isolated when necessary, including giving them a hotel room. The mayor’s office said it also has agreements with health care providers to ensure people staying in shelters who display symptoms of the virus can get tested.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office is regularly assessing information and issuing new guidance to shelters and homeless service providers about screening protocols and when to isolate people from a group.
Still, 60-year-old Mark Council said given his age, underlying health problems and unstable housing situation, he is “nervous and scared” about becoming ill — or worse. He has been sleeping at his brother’s house near Reisterstown Road and Northern Parkway after spending three or four years staying in shelters, but he continues to rely on providers like Health Care for the Homeless for support.
The city needs to move urgently to get homeless families into hotels and affordable, permanent housing to lower the risk for everyone, said Council, a member of the advocacy group Housing Our Neighbors. The group is circulating a letter to the city’s top officials demanding more action and resources on behalf of homeless families, and they point to Baltimore’s budget reserves as a source of money.
“The homeless people are people as well,” Council said. “I can’t stress that enough. It is a shame how the city is treating its brothers and sisters.”
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Jerrianne Anthony, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said city officials are working around the clock to put protections in place for those who are unhoused.
Shelter staff will be taking temperatures, moving beds farther apart and making sure people have enough to eat. Shelters also will have access to a special hotline from Health Care for the Homeless for medical advice to assist in screenings.
The city is helping to request supplies, such as face masks, for providers through the command center. Anthony said officials have ordered mobile hand-washing stations, though while they wait for them, officials have dropped off soap, gallons of water, paper towels and hand sanitizer at large encampments.
Additionally, the mayor’s office is working to build capacity for organizations that serve the homeless to provide more locations so people can stay farther apart. More space also is needed to offer isolated shelter for those believed to be infected while they await test results or recover after testing positive. That could include the use of hotel rooms, although officials could not say how many would be available.
“We’re attacking this at all angles,” Anthony said. “We want to be able to quickly assess, test and isolate those who may test positive and exercise social distancing to prevent the spread."
Kevin Lindamood, who runs Health Care for the Homeless, said the organization has been facing a shortage of supplies and stopped offering dental services to divert face masks to other health care services.
Continuing their services during the pandemic is vital, so people can manage their health and treat any chronic illnesses, Lindamood said. And so, he said, Health Care for the Homeless and other service providers are appealing to city and state leaders to put as many resources as possible behind serving such vulnerable populations.
“We work every day with medically frail people who live their private lives in public spaces,” Lindamood said. "People who sleep alongside 300 others in congregate facilities. People who sleep on benches at BWI. We must stop the spread of the virus to this population. They are members of our community and their risk is our risk.”
At Health Care for the Homeless clinics, Lindamood said everyone — staff, clients and visitors — are being screened before entering the facilities. The screenings involve asking questions about exposure and taking temperatures.
Lindamood said his team has not come up with a single positive screening, which suggests the virus is not widespread among Baltimore’s homeless population at this point. And when cases appear, he said, the goal is to slow the spread as much as possible.
“For people living in congregant facilities, viruses like this can spread like wildfires,” he said.
At one of the city’s biggest shelters, the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center run by Catholic Charities on Fallsway, admissions remain open for people experiencing homelessness after they have been screened, said Christine Collins, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. The shelter also has identified isolated spaces on site for people who display symptoms.
The practices and precautions are similar at other shelters in the region. The Westside Emergency Men’s Shelter in Baltimore County is performing temperature screening for anyone who enters the entire Spring Grove campus, said Megan Goffney, deputy director of Community Assistance Network, which runs a number of shelters in the county.
“If anyone receives a fever temperature they will need to be checked out further," Goffney wrote in an email.
Some say they are encouraged by the plans as they have been evolving.
Antonia Fasanelli, who runs the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the city has taken some promising steps so far, including pledging to provide hotel rooms and halt evictions.
Advocates remain concerned, however, about access to food stamps and other benefits, Fasanelli said. Her team is working with case managers across service providers to determine what legal needs people have, including whether they can access to public assistance or are illegally locked out of their home.
The state Department of Human Services said it is taking steps to relax requirements for ongoing public benefit cases, so that staff will be available to process new applications and keep benefits flowing. While social services offices are closed now, the agency is taking applications and offering information online and over the phone. Officials also are working with outreach partners to reach homeless families in encampments and elsewhere.
“Our goal is to ensure our customers are able to meet their basic needs with the least amount of hardship,” said Katherine Morris, a human services spokeswoman.
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City Councilman Zeke Cohen said he helped dropped off supplies and food at some encampments — while trying to keep safe physical distances and spread the word about how the people there could best protect themselves.
“I am deeply concerned,” he said, adding that rehousing people is the ultimate goal.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick solution," Cohen said. “We are going to have to be really creative in trying to figure out housing opportunities that are nontraditional for our neighbors experiencing homelessness."
Brandon Berryain was homeless for years. Now living in an apartment in Cherry Hill, the 63-year-old man said he is hunkered down inside, with his freezer stocked with stews and goulash.
Having the security of a house, where he can safely care for himself and manage his diabetes and high blood pressure, gives him the comfort and peace of mind he wishes for others.
“I am lying back and chilling, reading some, staying away from folks,” Berryain said.
At any one time, more than 7,000 people are homeless in Maryland, including some 2,500 in Baltimore.