Coronavirus pandemic: What we must do for the homeless

San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 2020

By Karen J. Hanrahan


Our health and our destinies are inextricably tied. Nothing demonstrates that like the current COVID-19 pandemic. As with most catastrophes, the coronavirus will have a disproportionate impact on the poor and homeless. But unlike events bound by geography, this pandemic crosses the borders of race, gender, class and status. With approximately one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population residing in California, homelessness was already at crisis proportions. And now, our homeless communities — living in close proximity, in unsanitary conditions and frequently with underlying health conditions — are more likely to contract, transmit and die from coronavirus. We simply cannot afford to allow the homeless to be further marginalized in this crisis. The only way to ensure that each of us is protected is to ensure that all of us are protected.  To do this, we urgently need a more expansive and comprehensive plan, led by the city, that harnesses collective resources and action to prevent, screen, test and contain the spread of the coronavirus, as well as provide rigorous and humane care for the inevitable onslaught of cases in homeless communities. We know we cannot rely on the federal government for this leadership. San Francisco must lead the way. Glide has been on the front lines of poverty and injustice for more than 50 years. Every day, thousands of people walk through our doors seeking help for addiction, trauma, mental illness, hopelessness and hunger. Even before this new threat emerged, the lines were growing for our meals service, family resource center and shelter reservations. We were stepping up in new and bigger ways to meet the rapidly increasing demand for our services.


As the coronavirus spreads, the lines are increasing at an alarming rate and more families with children arrive every day. Our homeless population is also trending older. People who are obviously ill wait in these lines, but there is no immediate or safe way to have them screened or tested for coronavirus. Among our community, there is a lack of information about the virus, alongside a growing fear that residents will not receive care. And because the people who come through our door face such a complex intersection of longstanding problems and lack basic information about the virus, they are often not able to take steps to prevent or protect against it. We are currently having to turn away our clients seeking shelter because, this week, the city canceled new shelter reservations. Our state and local leaders have announced emergency funding for bringing the homeless indoors and increasing sanitation services, but these proposals currently fall short of what is needed. And the federal government is just beginning to realize the unique needs of the homeless in the relief package debate. Glide and other service providers are working hard to maintain essential services for the homeless population in an effort to protect all San Franciscans. But we will have greater impact working under a coordinated and comprehensive plan. While there have been some incremental first steps, we need to move swiftly, collectively and with determination to provide: Information and outreach: We must find a way to get timely and accurate information into the homeless communities, where they are. Most are not getting information from the TV, radio or newspaper. Sanitation and hygiene: We must distribute large amounts of readily available sanitation services — masks, hand-washing stations, showers and portable toilets.


Screening and testing: We must give top priority to proactively screening and testing our homeless populations, given the likely high rate of contraction and transmission. We need a plan for triaging them into quarantine locations. The city has announced some initial first steps, but we should also leverage service providers who are in a position of trust to achieve wide-scale testing. Quarantine locations with essential services: For those who test positive, we must get them to quarantine locations with minimal exposure to others. The city is exploring hotel spaces and other locations, and we know this urgent work continues. But the homeless cannot quarantine when they have symptoms if they have no place to go. Once in quarantine, they will need continued service delivery. Shelter for those who are not sick: These facilities need to provide space for people day and night, with enough room to keep a safe distance. These populations also need a plan for comprehensive service delivery. Our homeless population cannot rely on family members or friends for support like many other groups in our community. Utilizing a social innovation framework and collective thinking, we can go beyond mitigation of the coronavirus and design sustainable solutions toward ending homelessness. For example, if we can utilize RVs and secure government-owned buildings to shelter people at risk now, as proposed by the governor, and if we can effectively devise and deploy wraparound service delivery to these new locations, then we have already begun to create a foundation for longer-term solutions. While the complexity and scale are daunting, we can meet this moment. Neither service providers nor governments are alone. We are all in this together. Karen J. Hanrahan is president and CEO of Glide Foundation and was the former deputy assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration.



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