The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many homeless shelters
to cut down on the number of people they serve, causing more individuals to
sleep outside where they lack regular access to hygienic necessities and other vital
resources.

People experiencing homelessness are some of the most
at-risk individuals in the community facing the COVID-19 epidemic, according to
local experts. And with new state measures in place, advocates are concerned
that more people will be forced to live outside, where they will have less
access to hygienic practices like hand-washing and other resources.

On March 23, Gov. Roy Cooper amended his executive order to
ban gatherings of more than 50 people, and President Trump has advised against
meeting in groups of more than 10. This leaves homeless shelters particularly
vulnerable as they serve large numbers of people who are unhoused. In recent
days, local shelters and organizations have had to make the difficult decision
to start cutting back on the number of people they serve.

“We’ve been pretty proactive as it relates to the situation,” said Michelle Kennedy, the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center in Greensboro and a city council member. “We’re implementing pretty stringent safety protocols based on guidance from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.”

While the center normally operates as a homeless day center,
it also runs an emergency winter shelter during the coldest months of the year.
However, Kennedy said that decided against doing so in light of the pandemic
because of advisory’s from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and
the Center for Disease Control.

In addition to checking temperatures of those who enter the
center, Kennedy said that they’ve had to limit the number of people who can
come to gather at all. While the center — which offers access to computers,
laundry, phones and a barbershop, to name a few resources — usually serves
about 80 people at any one time, Kennedy said that they’ve limited the number
of people who can enter the facility to 25 at a time. Kennedy also said that
she expect that number to go down.

Now, they are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to help with
sanitation needs like washing and have installed Porta-Johns and a handwashing
station outside of their building off Washington Street for people to maintain
personal cleanliness.

Sonjia Kurosky, the executive director of Samaritan
Ministries in Winston-Salem, said her facility has had to cut down the number
of people they house in their year-round shelter because of COVID-19.

“What we’re trying to do is practice physical distancing,”
Kurosky said. “We’re using a strategy called diversion, where we are trying to
figure out if there’s anywhere else [guests] can go so we can reduce our
numbers. We’ll ask, ‘Do you have a family member in the community, a
girlfriend, a buddy?’ Right now, we have 68 in the shelter, but we have started
working on diversion.”

Kurosky said on Monday that she couldn’t give an exact
number of people the shelter is looking to divert but that they would start
interviewing guests that evening to figure out who needed to stay and who could
go.

Diversion is a common tactics when shelters transition from
the winter to the spring, said Tracy Mohr, the executive director of City With
Dwellings, a homeless-advocacy organization in Winston-Salem. She added that
the pandemic has sped up the process by weeks.

“About two weeks ago, in light of COVID-19, we started doing
our diversion work early,” Mohr said. “We started working with each of our
guests with the intent of reducing the number by half in a week and then
reducing the number further to just our most at-risk population.”

City With Dwellings operates an emergency winter program
that houses men and women across four shelters in the city from December to the
end of March. On average, the organization shelters about 90 people during the
coldest months of the year. As of Tuesday, Mohr said they are housing just 17
individuals.

While the organization has worked hard to find places for most
of the diverted individuals to stay — including with friends or family or other
long-term shelters — year-round shelters cutting their numbers has increased the
likelihood of individuals sleeping outside, said Krista O’Connell, the lead
staff member for City With Dwelling’s overflow shelter.

“Some people have been saying that they have nowhere else to go,” O’Connell said. “They are asking for tents. So some agencies are going out to tents and trying to educate folks on social distancing.”

And
while most of the world seems to be caught up with fighting the virus and
taking measures to ensure personal safety, Mohr said many of the people she
interacts with daily are mostly concerned with the lack of access to public
facilities because of the outbreak.

“It’s really difficult,” Mohr said. “There are very few or no inside spaces available.”

O’Connell
mentioned that the closure of public libraries has hit the homeless population
particularly hard. Normally those experiencing homelessness go to access the
internet or to charge their phones. For now, City With Dwellings is offering a
handful of phones and laptops for use at its downtown facility in cases of emergency.

“We
had a gentleman file for unemployment today,” Mohr said.

Like the Interactive Resource Center in Greensboro, City With Dwellings is also offering hand-washing stations outside its downtown Winston-Salem facility, along with a mobile shower provided by The Dwellings, one of their partners, in the afternoons on site.

Andrea Kurtz, the senior director of housing strategies for
United Way of Forsyth County, agreed with O’Connell’s assessment that there
will likely be more individuals sleeping in tents because of the warmer weather
and the effects of COVID-19.

“There’s every reason to be concerned that we will see a
number of folks sleeping outside,” Kurtz said. “This is the time of year that
people move outside because it’s nicer but it’s also for folks thinking like, Do
I stay here with 70 other people?
and people may be choosing to sleep
outside instead. And I don’t think it’s a great long-term solution.”

Kurtz and other advocates are encouraging the public and
city officials to leave camps alone if they are not bothering anybody.

“If folks are in camps and they are safe in camps, let them be,” Kurtz urged. “If we broke up the camps, we don’t have another place for them. For folks who are camping, there’s nowhere safer for them to be.”

Kurtz’s stance is backed up by the Center for Disease Control,
which states on their website that “unless
individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during
community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse
throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This
increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Marcus
Hyde with the Homeless Union of Greensboro said his organization has been
printing and passing out flyers for people to post next to their camps.

The flyers being distributed by the Homeless Union of Greensboro for homeless camps. (courtesy image)

The
posters read, “Shelter in place quarantine, no entry allowed,” and include a black-and-white
hazard symbol.

“There’s
a small modicum of reasonableness to the CDC’s guidelines that police should
not be disrupting camps or forcing people into overcrowded shelters,” Hyde said
in a statement. “We’re trying to educate people on the streets about how to
stay healthy and assert their rights.”

City
officials in Greensboro ducked questions about their stance toward homeless
camps, evading responsibility for past sweeps and declining to state how they
view the matter under the current conditions of the pandemic.

Ron
Glenn, the public information officer for the Greensboro Police Department, told
TCB: “We don’t do sweeps.”

Glenn
said responsibility for clearing homeless camps typically falls to the field
operations department.

But Chris
Marriott, deputy director of field operations, deflected the responsibility
back to the police department.

“We
go in when we’re asked to help clean something up,” he said. “We’re usually
asked to come in after the camp is dismantled.”

In
Winston-Salem, O’Connell said City With Dwellings has asked the city if people
will still be ticketed for sleeping in public but has not heard back yet. She
also said that individuals have reported that the police department’s downtown bike
patrol has been more lenient on those experiencing homelessness during the
epidemic. Still, she said that the problems that existed before COVID-19 have
only been exacerbated by the virus and have elevated the importance of housing
as a basic human right.

“It shouldn’t be either ‘I can sleep in a tent and be safe’
or ‘I can stay in a shelter with other people and possibly be unsafe because of
the virus,’” she said. “Hopefully it’ll make more people realize that shelter
and healthcare are really linked together.”

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