Give Me Shelter: Addressing Homelessness In the Time of Covid-19

temporary shelter

Most states have issued stay at home orders, but what does this mean for millions of Americans experiencing homelessness?

Today, our Wake-Up Call newsletter (subscribe here) is sharing the stories of Gillian Parke and Alan Brown, both of whom work for the Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington. Parke serves as a program director at Sacred Heart shelter in Seattle and the Bethlehem Day Center in Kirkland. Brown is a housing services director based in Tacoma.

Senior writer Tess Bonn spoke with them to find out how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting homeless populations. Read on.

As the U.S. grapples with the spread of the coronavirus, around 95 percent of Americans are under stay at home orders. But this is easier said than done for millions of homeless Americans.

The Covid-19 pandemic could kill as many as 3,400 people experiencing homelessness across the country, according to a joint study by universities in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania and Boston. The report also estimated that another 21,295 of those who don’t have housing will be hospitalized due to the virus.

For Gillian Parke, the growing pandemic is adding a new sense of urgency in finding people a safe place to stay. “That term of staying home is more complicated and we’re trying to figure out ways to give people a temporary home while this is happening but it is certainly not easy for the people we serve by any means,” she said.

Parke primarily works with families who are homeless in Seattle, and the pandemic has put strain on the shelter’s ability to house them due to new social distancing measures. As a result, she said the shelters have looked to new options throughout the city.

“We have moved a number of families into hotels — in the beginning because people were vulnerable and then secondarily because we did not have the space to be able to have people in the day center or in the night center and keep people enough space apart,” she said.

Alan Brown detailed a similar experience in securing hotel rooms. Brown runs a Catholic Housing Services shelter in Tacoma that’s geared towards single adults and military veterans. Tacoma also happens to be located in Pierce County, which has among the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state.

Though Brown found getting access to hotels relatively easy, he said it’s all about “the support you’re willing and able to offer.” For instance, this includes not only having staff onsite 24 hours a day but also reserving rooms for them so that they can respond to any needs. His shelter also happened to have the first known Covid-case among the homeless population, which prompted shelter workers to start moving people into hotels.

“Shortly after that, we made an arrangement with a hotel in Tacoma where we actually reserved about 60 rooms and put the folks who were most vulnerable in the hotel,” he said.

Washington state isn’t the first state to find alternative ways to house its homeless population amid the outbreak. California Gov. Gavin Newsom fast-tracked a plan to secure 15,000 hotel and motel rooms for the state’s some 151,000 residents experiencing homelessness.

In addition to finding short-term solutions to the ongoing pandemic, there’s also the long-term strain that the pandemic could put on families who are on the brink of homelessness. Parke expressed concern about a potential influx of people becoming homeless due to lack of income and unemployment.

Roughly 16 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last three weeks due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. As The New York Times notes, this comes even as the Federal Reserve announced that it would pump as much as $2.3 trillion in the economy.

Brown believes there needs to be more awareness around homeless prevention and rent assistance, as well as a more concerted effort to educate people on what their options are. Parke agreed, adding that “getting that word out ahead of time would make a big difference.”

Though the number of Covid-19 cases in Washington continues to grow, Parke and Brown remain optimistic about getting people experiencing homelessness the care they need. “I feel like we were a bit ahead of the game and it seems like our local governments were also prompt to respond as well,” Brown said, noting that the agency has received strong local and state support.

The shelters have also adopted their own initiatives, such as providing care packages for families that include essentials like cleaning supplies and activity books for the kids.

Parke, meanwhile, has been heartened by the collaboration among the network of shelters in the state. “When there’s a crisis, social service agencies come together and say, ‘We’re here to serve those who are coming to us,’” she said. “We’re going to figure out a way to do it safely and with respect to dignity.”

Reporting by senior writer Tess Bonn.

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