Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a “Stay Home, Work Safe” order on Monday in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But the city’s homeless population, unable to comply with the order, remains at high risk for exposure. It’s also difficult to ensure social distancing in outdoor homeless encampments and indoor shelters, many of which were already at capacity before the pandemic.
There have been no recorded cases of COVID-19 among Bexar County’s homeless population, but local officials say it’s just a matter of time.
“It is happening in other communities, so we are 100 percent preparing for that,” said Melody Woosley, director of the City’s Department of Human Services (DHS).
The City has identified two hotels that can serve as temporary shelter and isolation centers for anyone who has tested positive or has symptoms and doesn’t have a home, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during a news briefing on Friday.
As part of its surge response plan, the City has other larger facilities, such as the Alamodome or Freeman Coliseum, that could be used as temporary isolation centers. That aggressive response is not yet warranted in San Antonio, and contingency plans are being finalized, officials said this week.
In the meantime, DHS is working with local support providers to set up at least four “homeless resource hubs” in San Antonio to provide food, hand sanitizer, and other supplies, said Morjoriee White, the City’s homeless administrator.
“We want folks to stay where they’re at,” White said, so they don’t have to travel across town to get food as churches, pantries, restaurants, and other food sources close. Finding food has become even harder for the homeless and low-income populations, she said.
Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM) has already been serving as a hub for the downtown and near-East Side population. The City’s pilot shower trailer is located there, and it was already a source for food and other services.
“There used to be a patchwork of helpers that served these folks,” said Dawn White-Fosdick, CEO of CAM.
Some chronically homeless individuals had restaurants or shops that would let them use their bathroom or take extra food, others would hang out at libraries or churches, she said. “Part of us being a hub is almost by accident … we’re the last man standing.”
The Harvest Church in the far-Northeast Side is also partnering with the city to become a hub, White said. “Whoever’s interested [in participating] at this moment, we’ll coordinate with them.”
Some of that helper patchwork is still operating, White-Fosdick noted. Corazon Ministries at Travis Park Church, Catholic Worker House, and other feeding programs are still providing meals at parks, encampments, and other locations – while observing social distancing protocols.
“Now the work that we do is so much harder,” she said. Her staff has people in line stand six feet apart, per CDC guidelines, and there’s no hand-to-hand contact when they distribute food. A volunteer or staff member sets a sack lunch on a table, they step back, then the client can step forward to pick up the sack.
The hubs will need more staffing and financial support, she added, “[we] probably need to ramp up because more and more [people will] start coming to our location.”
Haven for Hope, the city’s largest homeless shelter, paused taking in new residents on Thursday. Its covered courtyard, which can host up to 700 people at night, remains open. The nonprofit has started transporting more than 50 people from its courtyard each night to sleep at Margil Academy, as local schools have closed in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
“We still are [operating] business as usual,” said Kenny Wilson, president and CEO of Haven. They’ve paused taking on new residents, but Haven is committed to sheltering those who show up with children in tow, he said. “We can take more, we’ll figure it out.”
At night, those in the courtyard are spread throughout the campus, sleeping head-to-toe in dining rooms, air-conditioned sections of the warehouse, offices, and hallways, Wilson said.
Every person who enters the campus gets their temperature checked, he said, and Haven is converting its intake office into an isolation area for those who are showing symptoms.
“We’ve had one [person on campus] that had an elevated fever and that’s all,” he said.
A health care provider who works at CentroMed’s clinic on Haven for Hope’s campus recently tested positive for the virus, according to a Sunday news release. The provider was exposed by a family member and is currently under quarantine. The clinic was sanitized and temporarily closed while other employees were placed on self-quarantine.
Several other shelters and assisted housing providers have halted or slowed their intake processes, said Brenda Mascorro, executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH).
SARAH has coordinated regional assistance agencies long before the outbreak – now that role has become even more critical, she said. The nonprofit also manages the coordinated entry system for the area’s network of housing available for homeless individuals, including Haven.
“[We] weren’t aware that intake offices were closing as fast as they did,” Mascorro said. SARAH worked quickly to start conducting housing assessments over the phone Friday.
The nonprofit hosts a weekly meeting to share information, operating hours and services offered by partners, and best practices from across the nation. It’s also assisting the City in setting up the homeless resource hubs.
While agencies focus on providing services, she said, “we’re trying to advocate for the right resources while trying our hardest to coordinate. … Everything that was a need before is tenfold at this point.”
SAMMinistries currently has more than 120 people living in dorm-style rooms at its facility that provides wrap-around services for the recently homeless or at risk for becoming homeless, said president and CEO Navarra Williams. About 70 percent of them are children.
While some donors have stopped giving in the wake of the financial crisis caused by the response to COVID-19, others have increased their giving, Williams said. He’s concerned about the financial sustainability of SAMMinistries and other nonprofits that help the homeless.
“The folks that we take care of are at serious risk of catching these diseases if we can’t continue our work,” he said.
Law Enforcement’s Response
Before COVID-19, the City’s policy when it comes to homeless encampments across the city has been to make those people leave, but now outreach teams and San Antonio Police Department officers are taking a more educational approach, Woosley said.
Much like San Antonio’s housed population, she said, “we don’t want to encourage [homeless people] to move around.”
Often the chronically homeless have mental health, addiction, or trauma-related issues that make them avoid shelters and other assistance programs, White added, so the goal at encampments has become spreading education and awareness surrounding COVID-19 and social distancing measures.
“Before COVID and after COVID, our enforcement policy hasn’t changed,” said SAPD Lt. Jesse Salame. “We are not arresting people simply because they are homeless.”
Feeding programs in parks will not be halted, he said. “We’re only encouraging the people providing the food to practice social distancing.”
But public parks have curfews, he noted, that apply to all people – not just the homeless.
Some homeless advocates have said that those without housing during the outbreak should be allowed to sleep in parks. Changing that rule would fall onto City Council.
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When police are called about someone sleeping in a park or on private property, the goal is to connect them to services – not write a ticket, Salame said. But not everyone is ready for help.
“Our issue has never been about the lack of services, it’s always been about the willingness to accept them.”
Surge Response Plan
Bexar County and the City are making preparations for isolation facilities in the event San Antonio sees a surge in COVID-19 cases, whether they are homeless or not.
The emergency declaration approved by City Council provides the mayor and city manager the ability to repurpose facilities in response to the pandemic, City Attorney Andy Segovia said Thursday.
“I think, realistically, any available space, if it gets to that point, is a consideration,” Walsh said Thursday after City Council extended the stay home order through April 9. “But from a logistics standpoint, the last thing I think hospitals or the fire department is going to want to do is have 25 different sites spread out in 25 different locations … they’re going to want that stuff close by so that we can share resources and staffing.”
The San Antonio Fire Department is working with the County and City’s joint emergency operations center on solidifying a surge management plan, Fire Chief Charles Hood told City Council on Thursday.
The agencies are collecting information on the number of local hospital beds and respirators to form a capacity analysis and response plan, Hood said,
“Picture [the hospital system capacity] like a big red balloon,” Hood said. “If you blow that balloon up, what does the system look like just before that balloon pops? That’s what we’re trying to get our hands around.”
Once they know the capacity, they can develop “triggers” for when it’s time to activate the surge plan, he said. “If we have a surge, we have a plan where we could fill out the fairgrounds, we could move into the Freeman Coliseum, we could move into to the AT&T Center. We have planned out to that magnitude. … We have a large footprint to work with.”