A Greensboro city council member involved in homeless services is warning local leaders that without adequate planning and support for families, Guilford County could see a significant spread of COVID-19 in the homeless community that could put the entire population at risk in the coming days.
Michelle Kennedy, an at-large member of Greensboro City Council who serves as executive director for the Interactive Resource Center, raised several concerns to Partners Ending Homelessness Executive Director Brian Hahne and other local leaders in a sternly worded email on Saturday evening. Partners Ending Homelessness is the local agency that oversees federal funding to address homelessness while coordinating among the 40-plus agencies that serve the homeless population across Guilford County.
“With shelters at capacity and the emergency shelter at the Sportsplex at capacity, folks presenting now are being supplied with tents and outreach supplies,” Kennedy wrote in the email, which was obtained by Triad City Beat. “More than 50 people have been turned away since last Friday. This poses a huge risk for community spread via public transportation, face to face and spread within ten encampments.
“We are seeing an influx of folks from outside Guilford County calling and presenting at all locations — many from New York,” Kennedy continued in her email, which was CC-ed to a dozen local leaders, including Guilford County Commission Chair Jeff Phillips and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “There are no resources to support them, and without resources in place, we risk introducing any illness they may have to the entire community here. We are also seeing folks losing their housing due to job loss. We will continue to see an influx of newly homeless folks over the coming weeks.”
Kennedy concluded by warning: “Now is not a time for slow or indecisive decision making. Literally, every hour that there is a delay puts someone’s life at risk.”
Phillips said in an email to TCB that he was meeting with county staff on Sunday morning to discuss plans for mitigating the coronavirus spread within the homeless community.
Mayor Vaughan said in an interview on Sunday morning that Guilford County has a contract in place with a hotel to provide quarantine for people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID-19. But Vaughan said she sees a need for funding to house healthy families and individuals experiencing homelessness in motels to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Vaughan said she doesn’t want to publicly discuss funding options at this time, but said she planned to speak with Phillips on Sunday.
“There has got to be funding for emergency housing somewhere in the budget,” she said, “and I’m sure we will find reimbursement from the federal government under the state of emergency.”
Vaughan told TCB that city employees in Greensboro are providing transportation to people experiencing homelessness between shleters and healthcare facilities. But in her email to county leaders on Saturday evening, Kennedy asked how they planned to meet the needs of Guilford County residents who live in High Point or other areas outside of Greensboro.
“Shelters are being advised that EMS transport will only be available for life-threatening emergencies,” she wrote, asking who would be directed to provide transportation outside of Greensboro.
In her email, Kennedy also raised questions about whether people experiencing homelessness who tested positive or presented symptoms would have access to food and support for substance-use disorders.
“The Guilford County Health Department has no plan to support those with symptoms or requiring quarantine with food,” Kennedy wrote. Kennedy asked who would be “prepared to support those in isolation and quarantine locations with food.”
“How are you advising the health department on harm reduction strategies and who will provide those in quarantine with needed supplies, in addition to food?” she asked. “What about people whose alcoholism will put their lives at risk if they are cut off to access while in quarantine?”
Kennedy elaborated in an interview with TCB: “In many places across the country, the health department is working with low-barrier shelters to provide medical plans…. There needs to be a comprehensive understanding of any substance use disorder, and a plan put in place.”
Brian Hahne, the executive director of Partners Ending Homelessness, said in an email to TCB on Sunday afternoon that the agency’s COVID-19 Response Task Force convened a meeting of shelter providers in Greensboro and High Point, city staff in both cities, along with representatives of Cone Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health, on April 1. He said the task force is recommending that most healthy individuals stay in shelters, while working to locate additional space to quarantine those who are symptomatic or have tested positive.
Hahne said he met with Guilford County leaders, including Phillips, on April 2, and they came to an agreement that Guilford County Public Health acting Director Iulia Vann would develop health and safety guidelines for shelter staff. The group is planning to reconvene early this coming week. Hahne said Partners Ending Homelessness is “in the process of securing 2,500 disposable masks that shelter staff may use.”
Hahne also said that Open Door Ministries in High Point opened a satellite shelter at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point. The shelter’s primary site on Centennial Street will have 36 beds, while the new church site will have 20 beds. And he said Open Door Ministries has set aside part of its building on Centennial Street for quarantine space.
Phillips said in a statement emailed to TCB: “County staff has been diligently working on solutions to mitigate the risks of coronavirus spread within our homeless shelters and amongst our homeless population across the country. Addressing the safety and health of our homeless citizens is of critical importance, in addition to the already significant needs being addressed on behalf of all Guilford County citizens since the onset of the crisis.”
Phillips and Hahne did not address specific questions raised by Kennedy about funding for additional emergency housing, transportation for vulnerable individuals outside of Greensboro, or support for people in quarantine with substance use disorders.