As Shelters Struggle To Stay Open, Housing The Homeless Becomes Increasingly Urgent

On Monday, members of the Santa Cruz Homeless Union and Food Not Bombs did what they say local California governments have failed to do: secure hotel and motel rooms for dozens of people experiencing homelessness. 

The groups found rooms for 81 people in Santa Cruz, said Anthony Prince, the lead national organizer and general counsel at the National Homeless Union. 

“We’re just getting it done,” he said.

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps through all 50 states, it’s hitting vulnerable people particularly hard. People experiencing homelessness, like those in Santa Cruz, already have limited access to health care, hygiene, food and overall safety. The pandemic is worsening what was already a national tragedy of 4 million people living without homes. And as they face heavy demand along with limited beds and volunteers due to social distancing, advocates are struggling to keep up. 

The stakes are high. A recent study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that, for the 500,000 adults who experience homelessness on any given night in the U.S., coronavirus is likely to cause around 21,000 hospitalizations and 3,400 deaths. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) pledged a $150 million emergency fund to aid the state’s more than 150,000 homeless residents during the pandemic. On Friday, Newsom ordered a temporary ban on evictions for residents affected by the coronavirus. Legislators in Washington state voted to set aside $170 million earlier this month to address the state’s homelessness crisis during the pandemic. Over a dozen states have also temporarily halted evictions and eviction hearings, including New York, Texas, Virginia and Maryland. 

But the process of finding housing for the homeless is moving too slowly, Prince said. 

“It’s frustrating … We have heard this for years ― large, significant amounts of money get allocated and we don’t see any of it,” he said. “Most of it goes to police, administration … It lines the pockets of the homeless industrial complex. We don’t see any of it on the streets.”

As shelters take a hit across the country, it’s up to groups like the National Homeless Union and other nonprofits to do the heavy lifting. But the pandemic has made that difficult or, in some cases, impossible for shelters.

The facilities are also often run by volunteers, and with several cities and states operating under shelter-in-place orders, it’s been difficult to keep them operating. Local officials in Washington state, Illinois, Virginia and New York have already called for the shuttering of some shelters, with cities all over the country struggling to provide quality services amid social distancing measures and a shortage of volunteer staff. 

Freezing Nights, a seasonal overnight shelter in Puyallup, Washington, closed last week. “It was an extremely difficult decision,” Mike Boisture told The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald

The Puyallup shelter was largely run by volunteers, many of whom are over 65 and currently advised not to leave their homes, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Not having volunteers made it especially difficult to continue serving members of the homeless community. But once Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) prohibited social gatherings over 50 people, there was no choice but to halt the shelter altogether. 

But even shelters run by full-time, nonprofit staff, like nearby Nativity House, which is run by Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, are struggling to maintain their services. 

“Our staff are strained. We have staff with chronic health conditions who need to be removed from direct contact, we also have staff struggling with childcare,” said Gerrit Nyland, director of client information systems at Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. Nyland is also a member of the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness. 

There are 21,000 estimated homeless people in Washington state, and advocates are trying to find places to house them. Nyland is currently working to move 60 of his most vulnerable residents into individual hotel rooms, much like the Homeless Union did in Santa Cruz. 

“The benefit is that they’re isolated from people who could get them sick,” he said. 

But it’s difficult to make the call on which susceptible members will fare well with that much independence. One 94-year-old woman, for example, suffers from dementia and incontinence. Nyland said he’s worried about her health in a hotel room as well. 

The risk of spreading the coronavirus is a constant struggle. After a confirmed COVID-19 case, the Tacoma shelter had to quarantine everyone who slept near that person, Nyland said. 

“Smaller shelters can’t muster that up,” he said.

In California, local governments in Los Angeles and San Francisco have worked to secure hundreds of hotel rooms ― but in other cities and towns with fewer resources, people experiencing homelessness are at a loss, especially as the rates of coronavirus in the state skyrocket

The Santa Cruz Homeless Union is still waiting to be reimbursed for housing its community members in hotel and motels rooms, and they have also had to call on local police to quit harassing and threatening to arrest members of their community who are living in encampments. 

“Somewhere between 125,000 and 200,000 people a year die as a result of poverty, and that’s now made worse by this pandemic,” Prince said. “We are not going to go back into the streets, into the conditions that cut short the life expectancy of a homeless person. This represents a departure for us. We’re not turning back.” 

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