For years, the Harbor House shelter had a routine for feeding and sheltering the hundreds of homeless people in Thousand Oaks, California, many of them elderly. Each evening, one of a dozen local churches, temples and mosques would host a dinner, and afterward, lay out beds for their guests to have a safe place to sleep.
COVID-19 has turned that routine upside down.
The host places of worship were worried about safety, especially since many of their volunteers also are elderly. All the houses of worship shuttered entirely, and with that, the dinner and bed routine was over. It wasn’t safe for either the volunteers or the guests, said Denise Cortes, Harbor House’s executive director.
“It’s a scary and devastating experience,” Cortes said. “We’re already dealing with people living on the fringes of life. And now they’re hanging by a thread.”
Like Harbor House, other homeless shelters around the country are being pushed to the brink by the pandemic. Even in the best of times, some 568,000 people live in shelters, on the streets or in a car. And now, shelters in at least 17 states plus Washington, D.C., have been forced to close, suspend services or otherwise limit their operations, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Yet the dangers to homeless people infected with COVID-19 are significant: They are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times more likely to require critical care and two to three times as likely to die from the virus than the general population, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California Los Angeles and Boston University.
The researchers estimate that 40% of the homeless population will eventually become infected — and the cost for their care will total $11.5 billion this year.
Homeless service providers say they’re quickly running out of space, staff, volunteers, cleaning supplies — and money.
“Shelters are closing because they don’t have the resources to keep the doors open or to safely operate in a way that keeps residents and staff safe,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
At the same time, some cities are opening new shelters. San Diego last week opened an ad hoc shelter for up to 1,500 people in its convention center, using the cavernous space so the city’s homeless population can practice social distancing and have greater access to services.
Last week, Las Vegas began construction on a temporary isolation and quarantine facility, which is expected to house more than 300 homeless people who are either positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms associated with the virus.
And homeless people from the greater Cincinnati area, on the Ohio border, are hunkered down in the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, where they can get medical care and room and board.
Philadelphia is taking over a downtown hotel to quarantine homeless people who’ve been infected by the virus.
And two weeks ago, the Central Arizona Shelter Services, the state’s largest adult homeless shelter, began isolating homeless seniors and those with disabilities in special shelters to protect them from exposure to the virus, said CEO Lisa Glow. Some of the dorm rooms fit as many as 150 people.
“We were flipping mattresses so people could sleep head to toe,” Glow said. “It wasn’t sufficient.”
In Sacramento, California, the Union Gospel Mission closed its men’s emergency shelter and dining room March 21 and stopped accepting new clients for its men’s rehabilitation program to follow social distancing guidelines.
“Obviously, it didn’t feel good,” said Pastor Tim Lane, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission. “But it was a decision I had to make. I had to keep them safe.”
The shelter is still housing 30 men who are enrolled in the rehab program, according to Lane.
Grab-and-go meals are still available, and men can come in for staggered showers. Most of the men the mission has turned away camp along the river, so Lane and his staff make sure they have extra blankets, sleeping bags and tarps.
“I’m just grateful this didn’t happen in December,” Lane said.
In the Denver suburbs, the Severe Weather Shelter Network, which houses homeless people during the region’s massive snowstorms, had to close in March because of a drop in volunteers — right before a storm.
In Rochester, New York, the Bethany House closed its food pantry and women’s shelter temporarily because it didn’t have enough staff.
Some shelters, such as the Good Shepherd Shelter for domestic abuse survivors in Los Angeles, have stopped taking in new clients. Good Shepherd decided last month to limit its clientele to families who came to them before the outbreak, said Monica Martinez, a director at the shelter.
“We want to make sure we control the exposure to the virus,” Martinez said.
In Thousand Oaks, Cortes used donations to put up about 40 of her Harbor House clients in local motels.
Meanwhile, her younger clients are sleeping in campsites and some of her senior clients prefer to camp in their cars. They're too afraid to go to a motel, she said. She’s hoping to get the others housed quickly, now that Ventura County officials have leased a motel. At the motels, homeless clients will all be tested for the coronavirus and cared for, she said.
“It was very hard for them,” Cortes said. “We tried to explain how worried we were for them. I told them we were working on getting more donations.”
Other homeless service providers are finding ways to “decompress” shelters, that is, reducing the number of beds in a room. But many don’t have the space or resources to do that. Suburban and rural shelters, which are typically run by local churches, will be hit hard, advocates say.
In Texas, the Family Promise of Lubbock operates two homeless shelters, one for families and one for expectant mothers. They rely on a network of local churches to keep things running. But since the pandemic broke out and local churches closed, donations have dropped by half, according to Executive Director Doug Morris.
“Now, we’re just asking the church volunteers to provide gift cards,” Morris said. “Some are dropping meals off at the doorstep for contactless delivery.”
Morris said he’s stopped accepting new families in small shelters and instead moves new families into apartments and pays their rent.
“We’re all supposed to be staying at home,” Morris said. “But this virus didn’t end homelessness. There are still people that need our help.”
Advocates are hoping that the federal emergency spending package will provide some immediate relief. The $2 trillion emergency spending bill, the largest in history, includes $4 billion for homeless assistance, which can be used for temporary emergency shelters, staffing, training and hazard pay.
The money also can go toward eviction prevention assistance, including rapid rehousing, housing counseling and rental deposit assistance.
The legislation stipulates that the money may not be used “to require people experiencing homelessness to receive treatment or perform any other prerequisite activities as a condition for receiving shelter, housing, or other services.”
But many advocates fear the relief package won’t be enough and expect the ranks of the homeless to swell.
Shelter providers urgently need more money to hire staff to fill in for sick workers and to cover for the senior volunteers who cannot work, Yentel said.
They also need money to buy masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. And they need money to acquire temporary, bigger spaces for shelters.
Some shelters are using federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay for hotel rooms. Some are relying on private donations.
“I’m really worried about what will happen when the money dries up,” said Eric Samuels, president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, a membership-based nonprofit that works with local communities to prevent and end homelessness.