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Coronavirus spreads in Baltimore homeless shelters; nearly 150 people to be moved to hotels while advocates decry vacant permanent housing

An outbreak in one of Baltimore’s largest homeless shelters is prompting officials to move nearly 150 more people into hotels Friday to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The effort expands the number of homeless people the city has moved to private rooms during the pandemic, but advocates and providers point to empty permanent housing units as evidence officials could do more to protect them. It is at least the second outbreak at a shelter in Baltimore.

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Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said shelters across the city have screened their clients and staff, spaced people out across more facilities and isolated them when necessary. But with so many people spreading the virus without showing symptoms — and short of more permanent housing — containing its spread in shelters will take more testing, he said.

“Despite all of our efforts, we are at the stage where it is in the shelter system and it is spreading," Lindamood said. "In order to contain it, we need widespread testing of people.

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“You’ve got agencies, both public and private, that are treading water, and we see the wave cresting and it’s going to go over our heads very, very soon."

The trouble picked up last week in one of the city’s largest shelters, the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center on Fallsway. Five people at the shelter tested positive. The clients were staying in an isolated dorm for convalescent care, and along with an additional nine people were all moved to private accommodations.

To prevent further spread, officials decided Thursday to move an additional 141 people staying in the main part of the Weinberg shelter to hotel rooms and test each of them. The shelter operator Catholic Charities announced the plan to move them Friday in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, the city and state health departments, and Gov. Larry Hogan’s rapid response team.

A spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the city is tracking expenses for the hotel rooms. An estimate on total costs was not immediately available.

Catholic Charities staff will serve the residents at the hotels. Their meals will be provided.

The Weinberg outbreak was at least the second at a city shelter. Sixty-one people were moved last week from The Baltimore Station, a nonprofit that runs a substance use disorder treatment program, after some clients tested positive for COVID-19.

Once testing was completed, 30 people were positive, although one only showed symptoms of the virus at the time they were tested. Lindamood said the outbreak shows how silently and quickly the virus is spreading.

Advocates, providers and city officials are working with hospital partners to ramp up testing in the homeless community, Lindamood said. And Health Care for the Homeless has opened up testing bays adjacent to its Fallsway facility.

Jerrianne Anthony, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said the positive cases at the two shelters represent the total number of cases among people experiencing homelessness that the city has received notice of. Anthony said officials took immediate action in both cases.

“We care deeply about the health and safety of our clients and have made a commitment to communicate with them frequently, using every channel we can to reach them,” Anthony said, including social media, email, flyers, phone calls and letters.

The city previously moved about 150 high-risk people from shelters to motel rooms to help protect them from the virus. Other rooms have been given to those staying in shelters who were awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.

Antonia Fasanelli, who runs the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said even as providers do their best to contain and prevent outbreaks, the city is not acting fast enough to fill permanent housing that is sitting empty.

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“It is unconscionable that we have vacant housing units that are intended for people experiencing homelessness, that could be saving their lives, that are somehow caught up in bureaucracy, and not being filled,” Fasanelli said.

“There are hundreds of people in congregant shelters whose lives are at stake — and we should not have one vacancy.”

Two housing providers confirmed that they have apartments and houses that have been ready for new tenants for weeks, but they have been unable to move anyone in because of delays in approvals and inspections from the city.

The Women’s Housing Coalition has 10 vacant units. Another nonprofit, GEDCO, has 15.

“Getting people through this pipeline is difficult in normal times and right now, it is really, really tough," said Beth Benner, who runs the women’s coalition. “I just want to move people in and we can figure out the paperwork afterward. You’re going to be safer living in one of my buildings than you are out on the streets.”

Nichole Battle of GEDCO said her organization has been waiting to fill the empty units since before the pandemic hit. Besides the harm to the people waiting for housing, Battle said the delay is straining GEDCO’s finances.

“If we don’t have income coming into our properties, we are not able to pay our expenses,” she said.

Fasanelli called on officials with the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to hold calls daily, if necessary, with advocates and providers to coordinate responses and find creative solutions.

Anthony, the city’s homeless services director, said in dealing with the crisis, her team has not lost sight of the ultimate goal of providing permanent housing. She said efforts to match people with available housing is continuing.

“We strongly believe that housing is a human right,” Anthony said.

Still, she added, “demand for permanent and affordable housing continues to far outpace the available resources.”

Housing Authority president Janet Abrahams said her staff has been conducting inspections and completing leases throughout the pandemic and taking steps to make sure all families are placed in “safe, secure and healthy” homes.

Despite all of the actions, activists with the coalition Housing Our Neighbors said the city must move with more urgency. The spread of the virus is predictable and many people remain at grave risk, said coalition member Mark Council.

Council, who struggles with homelessness, called inaction a “death sentence.”

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