Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Baltimore’s homeless was one of the city’s most vulnerable populations. It is difficult for them to get health care and they are more likely to have chronic health problems.
Now, officials and volunteers are mobilizing to try to protect the homeless from being ravaged by the virus.
On Saturday, homeless advocate Christina Flowers was making her way into an encampment off Patapsco Avenue in South Baltimore. She was wearing a mask and had basic supplies to drop off like trash bags, water and food.
“It’s so messy out here,” Flowers said. “So muddy, so so muddy.”
In a video Flowers posted on her Facebook page, you can see the conditions. It is a damp, muddy mess in the woods, a sea of trash amongst the tents. In an interview afterward, Flowers said you can’t expect the people in the camps to follow the basic guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, like washing hands and social distancing.
“When some of them out there are practicing when to use a clean needle and when not to, we have to remember there is a component out there that’s going to make the wrong decisions anyway,” Flowers said.
The Centers for Disease Control is recommending localities not break up camps now, because that could spread the virus.
Jerrianne Anthony, Executive Director for the Mayor’s office of Homeless Services, said they no longer are trying to convince people in the camps to come into shelters. They have instead shifted to dropping off supplies three days a week.
“And supplies include water, soap,” Anthony said. “We have provided paper towels to create a handwashing station or the ability to wash hands.”
Anthony said they also are dropping off sanitizer.
There are around 2,300 homeless people in Baltimore according to a head count done last year. Most of them live in shelters, which are ripe for the spread of any communicable disease. People are in close quarters, sleeping in beds three feet apart. Anthony said they have ramped up the hand washing in the shelters. And they are trying to open a new 150 bed shelter so they can spread the homeless out more. But they don’t have the people to run it.
“So once we have the appropriate number of staff to staff this location, we are all set and ready to open,” Anthony said.
Staffing is also an issue for the non-profit Healthcare for the Homeless. Executive Director Kevin Lindamood said they have had to close community-based clinics and shift their focus to their main site on Fallsway near I-83 in the city. He said they are losing staffers who are at risk and are self-isolating.
Lindamood said it’s like a war.
“We’re trying to keep services open as long as we can until we lose the staffing ability and the supply ability to keep operating,” Lindamood said.
Both Lindamood and Anthony said so far, no homeless people in the city have tested positive for COVID-19. They credit the system that’s been set up. Anyone in a city shelter showing symptoms talks by phone with Healthcare for the Homeless. If it’s determined they should get tested they are taken out of the shelter. They are then tested and isolated in a motel until the results come back.
According to Lindamood, Healthcare for the Homeless is gearing up to provide drive-in testing in its garage so clients don’t have to come inside.
Lindamood said, “To actually have transportation take the individual who needs testing from the shelter through our garage and then to an isolation unit identified by the city.”
Lindamood said we knew before that homelessness was a public health crisis; but now COVID-19 is illuminating the gap between the rich and the poor and the holes in our safety net.
If you would like to help, you can make a donation at journeyhomebaltimore.org or at the Healthcare for the Homeless website.