Coronavirus Threatens An Already Vulnerable Population: People Experiencing Homelessness

Mar 18, 2020

In response to the spread of the coronavirus, people are encouraged to wash their hands and to isolate themselves if they experience symptoms. “When you’re homeless you don’t have many of those options,” said Jerrel T. Gilliam, executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side.

Light of Life is working to create hygiene kits to distribute during mobile outreach, to help people experiencing homelessness stay as healthy as possible, said Gilliam. In addition to regular donation items such as socks, underwear, and hand warmers, the organization actively seeking donations of vitamin C, hand sanitizer and even spray bottles. They plan to fill those with soapy water for people to clean their hands.

“The safer they are, frankly the safer our community is,” said Gilliam. “It’s public health for all of us to help the [homeless] community to stay healthy.”

Between its shelter on E. North Avenue and scattered sites, Light of Life provides shelter to 250 to 300 people each night, Gilliam said. Upon entering, each person gets a temperature scan and is asked to wash their hands. Meals are being served in smaller groups in an effort to prevent possible exposure to the coronavirus.

The beds at a YMCA shelter just outside Pittsburgh are full. The manager, who asked that her name not be used, said she continues to get calls.

“There’s a real need for shelter out there,” she said, and coronavirus was just exposing it. “I get calls every single solitary day.”

East End Cooperative Ministry in East Liberty can offer 51 beds each evening, with two, four or six people to a room. The beds have been rearranged so that people’s heads are at the opposite end of a room from other occupants’, said Carole Bailey, CEO of EECM.

“Right now we have not been advised [by public officials about] what to do if we do have someone who is experiencing homelessness who comes in with symptoms,” she said.

An Allegheny County spokesperson said they have been sharing CDC guidelines that suggests providing space to isolate, if possible, as well as to notify the hospital or health facility that someone from experiencing homelessness is coming in. 

Bailey said in many instances hospitals are telling people to quarantine.

“That would mean coming back to our facility, which is not feasible,” she said.

If the organization had to make a six-person room into a one-person room, it would lose a lot of the money it relies on to provide services, said Bailey. EECM’s budget depends on a reimbursement from Allegheny County for each bed occupied each evening.

Allegheny County is working to identify a location where people experiencing homelessness could go to safely isolate when they need medical help, but do not require hospitalization, a spokesperson said. 

“We can’t shut down. We have a 24-7 operation here where people are depending on us,” said Bailey.

EECM has converted its daily midday meal into take-out boxed lunches. In addition, the organization’s food pantry will now only offer bags for pickup. The organization continues to accept monetary donations to “handle all of the additional costs we’re going to incur as a result of having appropriate sanitization measures,” such as gloves, said Bailey. They are also encouraging healthy people to volunteer if they can.

The shelter in downtown Pittsburgh, run by Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, closed for the winter season on March 15. It will open between now and March 31 if the average temperature is less than 25 degrees, or if dangerous weather such as freezing rain is in the forecast.