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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