COVID-19: Philadelphia Area Organizations Support Individuals Experiencing Homelessness

Homeless support services are working harder than ever to protect the high risk and vulnerable homeless community from contracting COVID-19.

Homelessness is difficult under any circumstances, but researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University and UCLA estimate the virus could hospitalize more than 21,000 people experiencing homeless in the United States. 

A key challenge is preventing the spread of disease among the homeless population. City programs have focused on hygiene and distributing preventive supplies. Other local programs are offering space in hotels to homeless people in an effort to reduce crowding in shelters.

Most at risk are those with underlying health conditions, including those with mental health problems. Even shelters and programs that remain open are struggling to maintain effective staffing levels as workers burn out. 

Kyleigh Silver, a program manager at the nonprofit Your Way Home Montgomery County, which proved housing and crises support services, said these efforts carry on only because of those brave enough to work.

“Most humbling is the acknowledgement that protecting those experiencing homelessness and keeping them safe and healthy is being done by essential workers within emergency shelters, street outreach, and housing providers,” Silver said.

Preventing the Spread of COVID-19

In efforts to contain the Coronavirus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance for responding to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness. 

The purpose of the guidance is to protect those who are on the streets from contracting the virus. To meet the expectations of this guidance and support its homeless community, many organizations have increased efforts in providing shelter to those living on the street. 

Your Way Home Montgomery County’s public-private partnership has several initiatives during the coronavirus: to identify places and resources for people who are homeless and affected by COVID-19, increase funding from fiscal sponsors, and maintaining communication with housing centers.  

“By hoteling people who would be at increased risk should they catch the virus, we have moved 60% of our shelter population into hotels to offer better social distancing on-site at shelters,” Silver said.

One Day at a Time (ODAAT), which provides alcohol and drug recovery and support services to those seeking shelter, is increasing its effort to support the homeless community and focusing more on in-house support. Mel Wells, the nonprofit’s CEO, has been working directly with his street team to provide shelter and resources to keep people safe and healthy. 

“ODAAT is proud of its newly established wash house in Center City that provides restrooms and hygiene stations for those needing to clean up to protect themselves from the virus,” Wells said.

Community Organizations For Housing and Shelter

In efforts to provide shelter and reduce the number of people who are homeless, many organizations have established creative responses. Bethesda Project is a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, housing, and supportive services to adults experiencing chronic homelessness in Philadelphia. 

The organization also has invested in a porta potty and two outside hand washing stations to provide self cleaning options for people who are still living outside. Tina Pagotto, Bethesda Project’s CEO, has prioritized preventing the opportunity for the spread of the virus in shelters and in the homeless community.  

“We developed a series of protocols to help guide our staff in identifying essential tasks that are primarily focused on cleaning shared spaces and educating our residents on preventative hygiene practices,” Pagotta said.

The CDC also has guidelines to prevent negative outcomes from lack of services, and advises community leaders to continue activities that protect people experiencing homelessness. Those services include supporting continuity of homeless services, healthcare, behavioral health services, food pantries, and linkages to permanent housing. 

One of the many challenges to meet these expectations has been getting people off of the street and having room in shelters. Although open settings may allow people to increase distance between themselves and others, sleeping outdoors often does not provide protection from the environment, connection to healthcare, or quick access to hygiene and sanitation facilities.

Kyle Tribble is Your Way Home Montgomery County’s community relations manager and is not only committed to providing resources to those on the streets but also encourages people to use shelter options that are available. 

“Those who opt to stay on the streets can try their best to practice social distancing, but it’s safer in shelters,” Tribble said. “Because not only do we provide housing, but also extra resources needed. So, ultimately, we want people inside where they are able to stay clean.”

According to the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Boston University report, there is an immediate need for 400,000 additional emergency accommodation beds nationally to manage the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the homeless population.

Your Way Home is working closely with county leadership, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and other agencies to secure a quarantine site for those who have contracted COVID-19 and have no proper place to self-isolate. 

“Our housing resource centers continue to find creative and flexible ways to work with landlords and find affordable and safe rental units during the pandemic,” Silver said. “Also our street outreach continues to provide clothing, food, and other necessities to those living outside.”

Not only are those who are chronically homeless or experiencing a lack of shelter at-risk, but so are people who have been economically affected by the economy – which could result in an increase in homeless individuals and family.  Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic, families still face the pressure of paying bills.

“While evictions have been halted, that still means that rent is due,” Silver said. “The coronavirus is having a severe economic impact. National news is reporting that over one-third of renters in the U.S. were unable to pay their rent this month.”

Although the CDC has instructed officials to not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19, many of the public businesses homeless individuals use for shelter are closed. This limits the amount of options for shelter those experiencing homelessness have. 

“A lot of the people on the street don’t have any family which also means nowhere to stay and with the pandemic, a lot of the public places homeless people use to stay aren’t open,” Tribble said.  “Their options are limited as far as getting into a safe place where they cannot be infected.”

Halting rents during this crisis is important because even during non-pandemic times, there is not enough emergency shelter space to meet the needs of everyone sleeping outside. However, shelters continue to operate and take new admissions as they get openings.

“Halting rent payments prevent more people from becoming homeless which keeps people in settings where they are able to properly isolate and quarantine to tend to their hygiene habits in a space they don’t have to worry about the things that happen in a communal setting,” Pagotta said. 

While it’s still recommended to stay in a shelter rather than the streets, there still are challenges and changes in housing for the homeless due to social distancing orders. 

“The thing that struck us as difficult was providing appropriate distancing in communal settings,” Pagotto said. “Our sites are set up where people share space and it’s really hard to practice social distancing when part of their everyday experience is sharing space.”

How COVID-19 Impacts Mental and Physical Health

Those who are homeless are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus because lack of housing contributes to poor health outcomes, both mentally and physically. This is a population where many are advanced in age and already suffering from poor health, including deteriorated immune systems. Misty Sparks, director of entry-level programs at Bethesda Project, emphasized the importance of permanent housing being a priority. 

“A lot of our shelter guests have multiple underlying health conditions that make them susceptible to serve complications if they were to contract the virus, which increases their likelihood for a bad outcome,” Sparks said. 

Individuals who have underlying health issues or are living with HIV/AIDS have been instrumental in educating others in taking health precautions.

“The HIV/Aids community at ODAAT was already living a preventative lifestyle so they have been some of our leaders teaching us because they practice harm reduction, everyday even before the coronavirus,” Wells said.

Mental illness also plays a role in the lives of many homeless individuals which can be exacerbated during a crisis. Wells instils personal relationships with his residents and hosts virtual morning inspirations to keep their spirits high. 

“Many people here deal with depression, boredom, and just getting through the day to day,” Wells said. “As the CEO, I call all of my clients and staff members personally. It’s the moment you forget to check up on that one person dealing with depression, that one moment can end in death.”

Anyone who is experiencing homelessness, on the streets or in a congregate shelter, is likely to experience anxiety. Some feel this way because they can’t control other people’s behaviors and their environment, but also because COVID-19 is like an invisible threat.

“There’re a lot of people that have mental health concerns before the virus and it’s asserbatedd in this situation when they can’t go see their therapists or get their medication. It’s not like they have access to laptops for online groups” Sparks said.

Impact of COVID-19 on Social Service Agencies

Not only has coronavirus impacted the lives of residents, but also the essential workers who have been working through the pandemic. Staff is experiencing additional stress because of the lack of resources and reduction of much needed staff. 

The housing and homeless service providers continuing to show up to work every day to serve those experiencing homelessness is something that cannot be under-stated. Bethesda Project moved to an altered work schedule that reduced the number of hours full staff is on site, but staff is still concerned about their own health.

“From a management level, we are an essential service provider and it’s really hard to keep on-site staff during a stay at home order when people are legitimately concerned about their personal safety,” Pagotto said. “People don’t want to risk getting sick on public transportation or engaging with people because they have families too.”

Acquiring supplies needed is a national problem, but struggling to get the personal protection equipment for staff was an initial challenge that had to be overcome. There’s increased expenses especially spending a lot more money on expenses such as meals, utilities, and cleaning.

Certain supplies are critical to the COVID-19 crisis such as masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and rubber gloves. Although there has been a  steady stream of those donations coming in, organizations aren’t sure how long this will continue.

“Our most pressing need right now is financial resources to support the community in the way they need to be supported,” Sparks said. “We are an organization that thrives on donation all of the time. Socks, underwear, deodorant, soap are also still important during a time like this.”

As many organization’s expenses have increased, trying to figure out how to fundraise in new innovative ways without having to have people physically come to an event is a new problem to solve for. Many companies had to cancel charitable events, so an expected revenue stream is now temporarily on hold. All organizations are asking for donations to raise emergency funds that help provide flexible, emergency assistance to people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus.

Regardless of the challenges, new or old, several local organizations are committed to taking care of some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable populations.

Words by Cheyenne Dantzler.

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