In the early morning hours of April 4 in a Brooklyn homeless shelter, a man in his 50s named Gerald began to violently thrash in his bed. He banged his head against the nearby locker, and the sound of skull on metal woke up the room’s seven other occupants.
Anthony Dickenson, 63 years old, had been living in the shelter for five months. Awakened by the noise, he placed a pillow under Gerald's head to protect him. “He’d been coughing the night before, and was complaining he was tired,” Dickenson said. “He said he had a fever and a cold, and that he was fatigued a lot.” Someone else ran downstairs to get help, but, Dickenson said, the lone worker at the shelter was already occupied, so the room’s other occupants had to improvise. They called 9-1-1, but by the time the ambulance showed up, it was already too late. Paramedics later told Dickenson that Gerald had died of cardiac arrest.
“Speaking the truth, the workers here are way overworked, and it’s dangerous for us,” Dickenson said. “They’re short-staffed and short-handed.” Sometimes, Dickenson said, shelter workers don’t even know all of what happens in the shelter. He knows of three clients who had been taken out after testing positive for COVID-19. “But when I asked a staffer about one, he didn’t even know,” he said. “They don’t want the workers to know because they don’t want them not to come to work.”
If hospitals are the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, homeless shelters are the neglected edges, the vector points that will keep transmission rates spreading across a vulnerable population—and then to everyone else—weeks and months into the future. But, as interviews with half a dozen staff members at shelters across the country revealed, workers are beginning to feel frustrated at management that isn’t listening and government officials who aren’t offering assistance while they're left to shoulder the additional burden of stitching together an already-frayed safety net system.
“There's a lack of communication,” said one worker in a relief site based in New York who wished to stay anonymous. “It feels like we’re on our own.”
In dormitory-style shelters, beds are normally crammed together as tightly as possible, and people are served and eat food together, conditions that make social distancing impossible. The people who stay in shelters are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, as many of them have compromised immune systems from years of living in harsh environmental conditions.
Some U.S. shelters have been taking additional precautionary measures—trying to limit congregation points during mealtime and at entrances and exits, or taking temperatures of any new shelter clients. But shelters have also been under more stress than usual due to the shuttering of other spaces, like coffee shops or public libraries, that have become a de facto extension of public services for many homeless people.
Though they perform a vital function and risk infecting themselves by working in crowded spaces where COVID-19 could spread, shelter employees and volunteers still lack proper clothing, masks, gloves and face shields. This shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is a danger to both workers and those they are serving. “We are petrified of passing it on to clients, as most of our clients have underlying conditions like asthma or diabetes or [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease],” said one outreach worker in New York City who wished to stay anonymous. “We only have one coworker who isn’t under quarantine right now. It’s all putting our health at risk and our clients’ health at risk.”
“We can’t ask people to go out and fend for themselves when the warmer weather hits. There’s nothing open,” said Sarah Paspal-Jasinski, director of development at the Shelter Association in Michigan’s Washtenaw County. “It’s our responsibility to provide people with shelter, and we wouldn't want it any other way, but what saddens me is that people working in homeless shelters are also frontline people, and they don’t get the same recognition as our healthcare workers.”
Shelter workers in New York, California, Oregon and Michigan reached by VICE said that their workplaces were not following the CDC guidelines when it comes to protective gear or social distancing spacing, leading to staffers calling out sick due to fears of contracting COVID-19, which in turn leads to an additional burden on those who do show. “The same people that serve you food are the same who clean the bathroom now,” Dickenson said. “They got the counselors feeding us, they got security feeding us. They’re all overworked, but they need the job.”
Many are being told they can’t use vacation days or take time off, with the threat of being fired looming over them. While some employees are being paid extra during this time, many work in programs that are already underfunded, and so, they told VICE, that conversation is a non-starter. Multiple workers in homeless service centers in New York City have expressed disappointment in how the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has been working with the nonprofit organizations that they are subcontracting out to for assistance during this time. “They’re not communicating with the nonprofits, and that’s a big problem,” said one NYC worker who did not want to be named.
Another problem is the lack of volunteers. Josiah Haken is an outreach leader for New York City Relief. Before COVID, Haken would spend time preparing new volunteers on how to set up tables and chairs, how to serve food, when to pick up trash, the importance of performing a brief intake questionnaire with new clients. “We understand that a lot of folks are treated in a come-get-your-food-and-go way, and you can’t really help someone holistically with that model,” he said. But in the midst of the pandemic, the volunteer base is almost nonexistent. Where once he had 20 volunteers per week helping, now there are only one or two people who show up.
Shelter operators like Paspal-Jasinski said they’ve been hit by a disaster and are now focused on triage and the logistics of trying to find spaces where shelter clients can self-isolate. Paspal-Jasinski has been securing offsite locations—largely sites belonging to faith-based organizations—but it’s unclear how long these will be available, let alone whether or not they provide what is necessary. “Some congregations allow us to take people over there just for sleeping, which helps, but some locations don’t work because there are no showers in the facilities,” Paspal-Jasinski said. “This is one of our biggest challenges.”
Across the country, advocates have called upon local governments to use vacant hotel rooms to house homeless people, but with limited results. In late March, New Orleans began allowing its homeless population to move into the 155-room Hilton Garden Inn in the town’s Central Business District. Earlier this month, King County, Washington, moved 200 residents of a shelter into a vacant hotel. And despite plaudits that the city of San Francisco has been getting for its handling of the pandemic, Mayor London Breed has, homeless advocates suggest, been malfeasant by not utilizing the city’s vacant rooms, inaction that led, they argue, to 70 clients and workers in the city’s largest shelter contracting COVID-19. The shift from shelters to hotels, or other spaces where people can isolate, simply isn’t happening fast enough.
“There is more housing than homeless people, more hotel rooms than homeless,” said the New York City outreach worker. “The city is willing to quarantine after people show symptoms, but not willing to invest in preventative care. We have room available, but they're still having people go to shelters, where COVID is spreading.”
And due to this spread, homeless care workers fear the worst is yet to come.
“We’re really just in phase one,” Paspal-Jasinski said. “When the state, country, nation, world gets put back together, and the virus isn't as much of a threat anymore, and landlords are no longer obligated to freeze rents or have to abide by eviction moratoriums, people are going to have to play catch-up.”
“The big thing that’s coming is the second wave,” Haken said. “People who were living paycheck-to-paycheck maybe weren’t homeless, but are going to be. That wave is coming and it’s going to hit hard, and we’ll have fewer resources and fewer services.”
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