Some Shelters Shutter to Protect Homeless, Staff

By: - April 6, 2020 12:00 am

Springs Rescue Mission workers set up cots in a Colorado Springs, Colorado, gym this month. The isolation shelter is for homeless people with COVID-19 symptoms or who are discharged from hospitals after having been treated for it. Around the country, homeless shelters are running out of space, staff, supplies and money. Christian Murdock/The Gazette via the Associated Press

For years, the Harbor House shelter had a routine for feeding and sheltering the hundreds of homeless people in Thousand Oaks, California, many of them elderly. Each evening, one of a dozen local churches, temples and mosques would host a dinner, and afterward, lay out beds for their guests to have a safe place to sleep.

COVID-19 has turned that routine upside down.

The host places of worship were worried about safety, especially since many of their volunteers also are elderly. All the houses of worship shuttered entirely, and with that, the dinner and bed routine was over. It wasn’t safe for either the volunteers or the guests, said Denise Cortes, Harbor House’s executive director.

“It’s a scary and devastating experience,” Cortes said. “We’re already dealing with people living on the fringes of life. And now they’re hanging by a thread.”

Like Harbor House, other homeless shelters around the country are being pushed to the brink by the pandemic. Even in the best of times, some 568,000 people live in shelters, on the streets or in a car. And now, shelters in at least 17 states plus Washington, D.C., have been forced to close, suspend services or otherwise limit their operations, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Yet the dangers to homeless people infected with COVID-19 are significant: They are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times more likely to require critical care and two to three times as likely to die from the virus than the general population, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California Los Angeles and Boston University.

The researchers estimate that 40% of the homeless population will eventually become infected — and the cost for their care will total .5 billion this year.

Homeless service providers say they’re quickly running out of space, staff, volunteers, cleaning supplies — and money.

“Shelters are closing because they don’t have the resources to keep the doors open or to safely operate in a way that keeps residents and staff safe,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.