State begins efforts to help homeless through COVID-19 as shelters struggle with supplies | Delaware First Media
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State begins efforts to help homeless through COVID-19 as shelters struggle with supplies

Mar 27, 2020

The state is responding to homelessness advocates’ cries for support amid the coronavirus outbreak.


The response includes working to place some homeless people with additional health vulnerabilities in motels to keep them isolated from the virus. 

State public health officials and healthcare workers from St. Francis Hospital screened hundreds of homeless or otherwise vulnerable people in Wilmington and Dover for symptoms of COVID-19 this week— and put up dozens in motels to protect them from the virus.

Public health officials say they are using pre-existing emergency shelter and Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse motel voucher funding for those who qualify — and will find a way to pay for motels for those who don’t qualify but are at the highest risk for the virus. 

Jill Fredel, spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), gives the example of a man in his 70s with heart disease sleeping “shoulder-to-shoulder” with others in a shelter. 

“If somebody has to do without paper for the next month at [DHSS], we’ll figure out a way to pay for his motel room, because he is just so susceptible,” said Fredel. “We have got to get him off the streets. He is the highest priority.”

Fredel says the Department hopes funding expected to flow to the state from the federal relief bill signed by President Donald Trump Friday will be available for this use.

Fredel says the group of outreach workers, led by Susan Holloway of the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and St. Francis Hospital emergency department doctor Sandra Gibney, screened 323 people, roughly half of whom were homeless, for symptoms of the virus. The group put up 59 at-risk homeless people in motels, and sent specimens from two people to commercial labs to be tested for the virus.  

Gov. John Carney mentioned the effort involving Dr. Gibney during a live-streamed question and answer session Friday. 

“Obviously one of the biggest challenges there is that so many of the places that [homeless people] go to during the day are closed down,” he said. “There are services that we’re trying to stand up, that we’re trying to make sure they’re safe, that they’re separate from each other.” 

Several day programs where those experiencing homelessness can go to have basic needs met during the day, such as at the Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington, have closed

Meanwhile, shelters are attempting to prevent an outbreak inside their walls. 

Rev. Tom Laymon heads the Sunday Breakfast Mission, which provides nightly emergency shelter for upwards of 130 people — plus a few dozen more in longer-term residential programs. 

He says staff enforce social distancing by spacing clients out as they wait in line for intake and staggering meal shifts. But challenges persist.

“We are pushing our resources to the Nth degree in terms of supplies,” said Laymon. “We have either run out of masks on one side, virtually run out of masks on our men’s side. Basically our thermometer covers are at a low end. We are basically without any capability of handing out hand sanitizer to the homeless any further.”

Fredel of DHSS says there is no concrete plan yet to help shelters source cleaning and hygiene supplies. 

Support for stocking supplies was among the requests in a letter sent to Gov. John Carney last Friday from representatives of the Continuum of Care, a statewide coalition of organizations working to end homelessness. 

The letter asked for “urgent” assistance during the COVID-19 crisis, in the form of alternative shelter capacity as well as safe options for homeless people with symptoms of the new coronavirus. It also called for increased access to state-funded hotel vouchers. 

Some shelters say they have space to isolate a sick resident on-site, but others, like the Sunday Breakfast Mission and those run by the Ministry of Caring, do not. 

Some shelters say they have space to isolate a sick resident on-site, but others, like the Sunday Breakfast Mission and those run by the Ministry of Caring, do not. 

“I don't think, at this point, we have the ability to quarantine them on-site,” said John Bates is deputy director of programs at The Ministry of Caring. “They would have to go to a hospital or urgent care to get medical attention.”

The Ministry of Caring runs several emergency shelters totalling close to 100 beds and as well as several long-term and “holistic” housing shelters in the City of Wilmington. 

The Ministry’s shelters are trying to enforce social distancing. Bates says staff are taking residents’ temperatures every time they enter the building, and are asking them not to ride public transportation or be in crowds.

Bates supports the idea of using motels to provide safe housing in the time of COVID-19. 

“Any type of lodging where we could isolate residents who present with those symptoms or have COVID-19 would be helpful for us,” he said. “However that unfolds, whether it's a hotel or motel or some other residential facility that would allow us to do that, that would be a great help, and we actually need that. Any homeless provider probably would support what I’m saying.”

Bates says the additional sanitation needs have put a burden on the Ministry of Caring. 

“As a nonprofit, it’s costing us dollars that we hadn’t expected to spend,” he said. “Because we had to order much more supplies, we have to do a lot more cleaning.”

Former Delaware Department of Health and Social Services Director Rita Landgraf is helping with the state’s response for the homeless population.

“From my perspective, it’s probably a matter of time that we will get a positive [among the homeless population],” she said. “Then indeed we go into the mitigation end of this with our intervention. Public health would need to do [contact] tracing, … who has that person been engaged with. When we identify that, we will be quarantining people.”

Fredel says plans for where that would happen are still being developed. 

John Bates says despite the challenges, the Ministry of Caring plans to keep its shelters open. 

“We know that we’re probably needed now more than ever, with what’s going on,” he said. “We just want to make sure that we’re taking every possible precaution to make sure that our staff, our volunteers and our residents are as safe as possible ... This is a very challenging time for everybody but we want folks to be safe and healthy. So we're doing everything in our power to make sure that happens.”