Rising virus, falling temperatures defy shelters

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – After three years on the streets, Tiecha Vannoy and her boyfriend Chris Foss plan to face the pandemic this winter in a small white “pod” with electricity, heating and space for two.

Portland this month has set up organized rows of shelters, reminiscent of garden sheds, in three ad-hoc “villages” – part of an unprecedented effort unfolding in cold weather cities across the country to keep people without permanent homes safe. as temperatures drop and coronavirus cases increase.

“We just managed to stay in our little place. We don’t have to leave here unless we want to, ”said Vannoy, wiping his tears as they moved to the shelter near a downtown train station. “It’s been a long time. He always tells me to have faith, but I got over it.”

The pandemic has hit homeless service providers in a cross-chain: demand is high, but their ability to provide services is limited. Shelter operators who have already cut capacity to meet social distance requirements face new tensions as winter approaches. Coming in from the cold now can mean spending a night in a warehouse, an old Greyhound bus station, schools or an old prison.

And people living on the street face difficult choices. Many hesitate to enter the small number of places available to escape the cold for fear of catching the virus.

Youtube video thumbnail

“These (are) people who, under normal circumstances, may enter a support center to warm up, or enter the subway to warm up, or enter McDonald’s to warm up – and simply do not have these options available to them. What then? “asked Giselle Routhier of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.

According to some projections, coronavirus cases will increase until January, when the longer cold waves tend to increase the demand for shelter. With the extension of a federal eviction moratorium ending December 31 in limbo, housing advocates predict up to 23 million Americans they may lose their homes.

With more space needed, providers have become creative.

In Troy, New York, Joseph’s House and Shelter is renting 19 rooms in a former convent for a seasonal shelter. The Poverello Center in Missoula, Montana, cut its capacity in half in April and struggled to add 150 socially distant beds to a new winter shelter in a warehouse. Portland has opened new shelters at an old Greyhound bus station and an unused prison and is renting 300 rooms in six motels, in addition to the 100 pods.

Pallet, the company that makes 64- or 100-square-foot pods, said it had provided 1,500 beds to cities in the United States since the pandemic began.

Vannoy and Foss were afraid to stay in crowded shelters and worried about the safety of collecting cans of soda used to change. Charities they have trusted for hot lunches, free clothes and closed hot showers. At one point, Foss did not change his clothes for a month. Now, they have a safe space.

“People just locked themselves in the house, I understand,” said Foss of the sudden shortage of services. “But it really made everything dirty and unpleasant and you really had to put your own survival instincts at high speed.”

Many locations are using federal money under the CARES Act to increase winter shelter options for people in COVID-19 – and some say the solutions provide a glimpse of what would be possible with more consistent, long-term financing.

Portland is paying $ 1 million a month to rent motel rooms to homeless people at high risk of complications at COVID. In Delaware, a former 192-room Sheraton Hotel purchased for $ 19.5 million by New Castle County for use as an emergency shelter, opened last week.

“There is something a little bit poetic about taking a very good hotel and hosting the most vulnerable individuals in these hotels to see if we can transfer them to something different,” said county executive Matt Meyer.

In Ithaca, New York, defenders have expanded their reach to camps and other places where people are taking shelter.

When Jose Ortiz tested positive for coronavirus last month, he managed to isolate in his shelter elaborately worked on “The Jungle”, a piece of forest on the outskirts of the city where dozens of people settle in tents and more permanent structures. Supporters brought him food, water, a propane heater and cough drops while they watched him, said Deb Wilke, homeless crisis relief coordinator at Second Wind Cottages.

“This is my home, so this is where I want to be,” said Ortiz outside his camp, complete with a canvas-covered “tree house” built at the waist, “and they were very good at ensuring that I had everything I needed. “

The camp is served by the Christian ministry Loaves & Fishes, which packs around 250 lunches or dinners a day for delivery to the area. In the meantime, more employees are being hired this winter for telemedicine services launched by the non-profit organization REACH Medical.

“I think it will take a little more work to walk through the snow in the mud,” said Matt Dankanich, a community health worker at REACH, who makes regular rounds of the wooded camp with a nurse. It can connect people to doctors and other providers through encrypted video calls.

Still, despite the masks and the distance, the outbreaks have damaged some operations.

An outbreak that began during Thanksgiving Day at the Union Gospel Mission in Portland left 18 people in makeshift housing. As a result, the organization temporarily closed its doors, interrupted the daily distribution of meals, closed its thrift store and briefly another winter shelter. Since then, the mission has recovered and is preparing to serve more than 1,000 Christmas meals.

In Missoula, coronavirus outbreaks have already quarantined a third of the staff at the Poverello Center twice. Meanwhile, the city-bought motel for shelter is packed almost every day, said executive director Amy Allison Thompson.

In Ithaca, Ortiz’s health improved. Other people in the camps are expected to seek shelter in the city when temperatures get cold. But he is reluctant to leave his “cozy” place in the forest behind.

“All my things are here. My home is here, ”he said. “So, it’s hard for me to just pick up and go.”


Hill reported from Ithaca, New York.