As Atlanta residents are ordered to stay home and practice social distancing to stave off the spread of COVID-19, one vulnerable group is the city’s homeless population, but city officials are racing to find a place to house and treat them.
The homeless, many with poorly treated health conditions, often stay in crowded shelters or in outdoor camps where if one person has the virus it may be difficult for others to social distance.
But relief could come soon as The Georgia Department of Public Health will lease a downtown Atlanta hotel to house homeless residents who have coronavirus or who have symptoms of the virus and are awaiting test results.
“There are certainly unique challenges related to the homeless population, one being the ability to isolate them if they tested positive for COVID-19,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said during a teleconference Monday.
The hotel is expected to open this week and will provide 170 rooms for isolation and quarantine, an Atlanta city spokesman said. The homeless residents will be provided meals at the hotel and the Georgia Department of Health will provide screenings and training and personal protective equipment for staff.
The name of the hotel and its location was not released by the city. The cost of the lease was also not released.
Atlanta has more than 3,000 homeless residents, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. So far, seven homeless residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a document detailing the city’s homeless efforts posted on Partners for Home website.
The document notes the number of homeless individuals who have the virus could be higher considering asymptomatic residents are not being tested.
It’s not clear if any of the more than 100 Georgians who have died from the virus were homeless.
Gateway Center CEO Raphael Holloway said he’s noticed an uptick in the number of people seeking shelter. The center has 482 beds at its two locations combined and is operating at full capacity. On a normal night, the shelters reach between 85% and 95% capacity.
“I’m sure it has a lot to do with people wanting to be in spaces where they can be a little safe and have access to basic needs, shower and wash their clothes and hands,” Holloway said.
According to Partners for Home, Grady Memorial Hospital has accepted some homeless people who needed quarantine or isolation.
Finding additional locations to quarantine and isolate the homeless was one of the recommendations made to Gov. Brian Kemp by the state’s coronavirus task force, which Bottoms serves on.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Holloway said the center has taken preventative measures such as requiring social distancing and instituting handwashing and cleaning protocols.
United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness co-chair Jack Hardin said the homeless are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, citing a recent study suggesting 40 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. will be affected.
“There are other things compromising them,” Hardin said. “Many of them live in a congregated setting, such as shelters.”
Anyone entering a Gateway Center shelter is given a questionnaire to see if they have COVID-19 symptoms, Holloway said. The center has also worked with the city and local agencies to give information to homeless camps about the COVID-19 and its symptoms.
The hotel couldn’t come at a better time for Christian nonprofit ministry Atlanta Mission, which had its first positive coronavirus case Monday, spokeswoman Rachel Reynolds said. The nonprofit manages four shelters in Atlanta and one in Jefferson.
Reynolds said the nonprofit stopped taking any new homeless residents into its shelters on March 13. Right now, there are 600 homeless residents staying at three Atlanta Mission shelters combined.
While homeless shelters have taken necessary precautions, Holloway said Gateway’s biggest challenge is access to testing to confirm suspected cases of the virus or those who might have been exposed.
“Asymptomatic people can’t get a test,” Holloway said. “Everyone has been asked to isolate if they’ve been in contact with someone with the virus. But if someone in a homeless camp tested positive, it’s difficult for others to isolate in place.”
Holloway said those at the shelter that have exhibited COVID-19 symptoms have been sent to Grady Memorial Hospital and are kept there until they are tested. Once discharged, they’re either sent back to the Gateway Center or to another isolation center.
“No one is being discharged to the street,” Holloway said.
Additional funding could also help the city’s homeless after Bottoms issued an executive order allocating $7 million in emergency funds to those affected by COVID-19, including $1 million for homeless preparedness.
The city has not said specifically how the $1 million will be used, but Hardin said the funds could help with testing, providing transportation to and from the hospital to shelters and staffing to help with testing.
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore said the $1 million is a start. “We don’t know how long it’s going to take,” she said. “The city is trying to do its part, but health and human services are a county function.”
Homeless advocate Matthew Rancifer thinks the city can do more, such as opening their warming centers to unsheltered homeless residents who may not be aware of the coronavirus. For the past week, Rancifer and his wife have canvased homeless camps passing out information about COVID-19.
“Some don’t know if there is a virus happening unless they hear it from other homeless residents,” said Rancifer who runs The Justice for All Coalition.
On a teleconference Tuesday with Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council, Moore said she is concerned about the “unsheltered” — those living in homeless camps. She said she wants to make sure the city is not removing homeless campsites.
“It scatters people and makes it harder to deliver services to them,” Moore told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, adding she witnessed food being provided to a large homeless camp, but there were no protections in place, such as social distancing.
Bottoms assured Moore: “We are not disturbing encampments.”
Moore said she sent an email to councilmembers and the mayor suggesting other ways the city could help, including adding washing and sanitation stations the homeless could use.
Through it all though, Holloway hopes “that we don’t begin to ostracize the homeless community and accuse them of spreading the virus, when in fact they are more vulnerable to getting the virus from other people,” Holloway said.
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