EVERETT — Local shelters and advocacy organizations are grappling with the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak within the homeless community — and how to isolate people that already have few options for where to go.
At a time when public health officials are encouraging social distancing, many homeless people are living in close quarters in shelters, cars or encampments. Much of the population is plagued by underlying health conditions, putting them at greater risk of serious illness from infection. And the restaurants and other public facilities they’ve come to rely on for bathrooms and sinks to wash up have shuttered.
“It’s not if, it’s when we have a significant population of unhoused people that are ill,” said Jim Dean, executive director of the Interfaith Association of Northwest Washington, which runs a family shelter in Everett. “Once it’s in the population, it’s going to be really a challenge to keep people healthy.”
Snohomish County is working with other organizations to scrape together plans to help protect the homeless during the outbreak.
“Those currently living in shelters need more support implementing social distancing, or we will have increased outbreaks with devastating effects on individuals and the healthcare system,” County Executive Dave Somers said in a statement on Wednesday. “Yesterday, we announced a new partnership to help some of our vulnerable communities find better housing options. We are working on a number of other programs to provide alternate space and minimize congregate sheltering.”
The county said in a Tuesday news release that it would work with Providence Institute for a Healthier Community to provide shelter for homeless people who are also veterans, families with children, or otherwise “vulnerable individuals.”
A $20,000 grant from the Providence Institute and another $80,000 from the county will serve as a basis for a fund that will initially provide housing for 33 families a night for the next 30 days, the news release says. To donate to the local coronavirus response fund, visit GiveWellLOCAL.org.
“Working together with the county and local lodgings, we will increase protection this week for vulnerable individuals and families, and the community at large, by providing separate quarters for community members at high risk who are experiencing homelessness,” Scott Forslund, executive director of the institute, said in a statement. “This immediate upstream action is also one component of a broader strategy to help preserve critical medical facilities against a potential medical surge.”
An emergency cold weather shelter opened last fall in the Carnegie Resource Center, a downtown Everett hub for social services. The shelter, run by the Salvation Army’s Everett post, was set to close at the end of March. But now officials are considering pushing that date — in part because of the outbreak, said Lt. Col. Harold Brodin of the Salvation Army.
Additionally, Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday approved $23 million in emergency funding for the Department of Commerce to address the needs of homeless individuals, including sanitation efforts and shelter staffing, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Dean is worried, though, that the push to establish sites to support homeless people amid the pandemic isn’t happening quick enough.
“When I look at how fast things are getting set up in King County, I’m concerned that Snohomish County is behind,” Dean said.
King County officials announced Saturday that the arrivals section of Boeing Field will be repurposed to make room for people living in a crowded Seattle shelter, reported The Seattle Times. King County has also leased two other properties, a Bellevue parking lot and an Issaquah motel, to offer people who are homeless space for COVID-19 quarantine or isolation, according to the Times.
“There’s a lot of logistics involved in making this happen,” said Dean, who’s invested in additional cleaning supplies and leased space from another church to provide an isolation area. “Not to mention, nobody knows how much it’s going to cost. I’m spending money that I don’t have right now because I’ve got to do it to make sure we keep people safe.”
Brodin said he’s noticed an increase in demand at the Salvation Army’s food bank in Everett.
He’s also seen homeless people changing their behaviors in small ways to slow the spread of the virus.
They wash their hands more often. They leave more space between themselves.
“I think they recognize the seriousness of the situation,” Brodin said. “They’re wanting to protect themselves as well as others around them.”
Of Snohomish County’s roughly 1,115 homeless people, nearly 300 lived in vehicles, about 400 lived in emergency shelters and approximately 110 lived in transitional housing when the annual Point-In-Time survey was conducted in 2019.
“We as a community really need to figure out some alternative solutions for the people who are living on the streets,” said Sylvia Anderson, CEO of the Everett Gospel Mission, which runs two shelters. “I think that it’s time for us to put up some temporary facilities.”
Health conditions and chronic disease, such as heart disease and diabetes, are common among the people served at the shelters, Anderson said.
“The majority of our people are 45 to 55. If you’ve been homeless for a long period of time, physically, you’re 10 years older than that,” she said. “Usually when they come to us, they have not been to a doctor in a while. Their health is already marginalized.”
Adding to the struggle of homeless individuals is a wave of temporary closures and restricted operations at local organizations that help to provide a pathway to housing.
And for now, the Carnegie Resource Center isn’t offering to help connect homeless people with housing and health care.
“Right now, housing is on a standstill because of (the outbreak),” said 37-year-old Roshell Turner, who’s been homeless for about a year.
Turner, her two young children, and her fiance now live at the Interfaith Family Shelter in Everett. She hoped to find an apartment soon, but many leasing offices are closed, and she’s having trouble reaching the organizations that would normally assist her in the search.
“It keeps me here,” Turner said. “I could possibly get housing in the next month or so, but with everything going on that’s not going to happen.”
The Everett-based Cocoon House, a non-profit that helps young homeless people meet basic needs, is making a backup plan in case of an outbreak among staff and developing a protocol for what to do if a client is symptomatic, said CEO Joseph Alonzo.
The organization has also cut back on outreach efforts and restricted what’s offered at its drop-in center to just basic services.
“We’re trying to triage and only bring in people at this time that absolutely need it,” Alonzo said. “We’re prepared for needing to kind of isolate when the time comes, but we haven’t had to face that just yet.”
But advocates must not only respond to the “day-to-day evolution of the crisis,” Alonzo said. They must also look ahead to the potential effects of the widespread economic downturn ushered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that this community — and all communities around the country and beyond — will see increased numbers of families experiencing homelessness,” he said. “How long-lasting the impacts of this will be, it’s anybody’s guess.”