AA homeless population faces shelter, sanitation challenges amid COVID-19 crisis

Tuesday, April 7, 2020 - 4:36pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

In recent weeks, businesses have closed their doors and restaurants have been forced to move to takeout only as residents have taken to self-isolation, all to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines recommend. However, homeless shelters in Ann Arbor remain open, in full operation and at capacity.

Sarah Paspal-Jasinski, director of development at the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, said day-to-day operations have shifted completely in response to the coronavirus. Two people housed at the Delonis Center, located on West Huron Street, tested positive for COVID-19 in late March. Since then, they have been moved to the hospital. 

Paspal-Jasinski said SAWC has expanded the facilities to local hotels in order to provide more shelter for people experiencing housing insecurity while maintaining social distancing guidelines. In addition, they recently hired more staff in response to the crisis. 

“We’re continuing to try and house people so that they are not forced into homelessness, but it’s not as easy or as manageable as it was prior to this pandemic,” Paspal-Jasinski said. “Our mission has temporarily changed from ending homelessness one person at a time to providing shelter for anyone that needs it.” 

She also explained the difficulty shelters face in complying with social distancing recommendations. In each bedroom, there are three to four beds. While each bed is spaced six feet apart, there is still a risk involved. 

“How do you shelter in place when you’re a homeless shelter, and you help up to 150 people a night? You can’t always practice social distancing,” Paspal-Jasinski said.

Lit Kurtz is a vendor at Groundcover News, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing economic opportunities to the members of the homeless population. Kurtz spoke with The Daily about her experience with housing insecurity. 

Kurtz said like other vendors at Groundcover News, she relies on the profits she makes from selling papers to fund her living expenses. With operations at Groundcover News temporarily suspended, Kurtz said she is worried for those who cannot provide for themselves and are forced into warming centers. Because the COVID-19 crisis has forced the organization to halt its print production, there is now an online subscription option with the revenue going to vendors.

Kurtz said based on her own experience, she believes it would be difficult to comply with social distancing guidelines.

“There definitely needs to be extra buildings so that people are not on top of each other. It’s a critical time for there to be space and buildings available for people who are experiencing homelessness,” Kurtz said. “From my experience, when I was there, everyone was on top of each other. There’s no way we would be able to practice distancing and being a safe distance from other people.”

Kurtz also urged the media to focus on the perspectives of those who have experienced homelessness when covering the coronavirus.

“Our voices needed to be out there as soon as this crisis broke because we were already in crisis,” Kurtz said. “Progress has just lagged so far behind and we are so ill-prepared for this crisis and I just hope we’ll learn from this going forward. Some of the things that are put in place right now should have been put in place years ago.”

Eric Hufnagel is the executive director of the non-profit organization, Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. On March 30, Hufnagel wrote a letter addressed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that both thanked her for her response to the coronavirus and highlighted this need to focus attention on the homeless. The letter cited a recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University and the University of California, Los Angeles that provides evidence that the homeless populations are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“When compared to the general population, individuals experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die,” Hufnagel wrote. 

In an interview with The Daily, Hufnagel further discussed the vulnerability of the homeless population. 

“We know just based on data that they’re at higher risk. When we look at the coronavirus, we know they’re more susceptible, and that outcomes are not as good,” Hufnagel said. “Individuals who are not in more of a restricted and safe environment have a greater inherent risk of being infected by coronavirus.”

Hufnagel said even when admitted to a homeless shelter, people are still at risk of catching the virus. 

“When we think about congregate facilities, when we think about shelters, we understand that when people are in closer proximity that there is a greater risk of coming into contact with someone who has coronavirus,” Hufnagel said. 

Susan Beckett, publisher at Groundcover News, said the inability to properly sanitize has been a major problem.

While shelters are doing their best to enforce cleanliness and slow the spread of germs, it is impossible to oversee where each client goes during the day and what they are exposed to.

“With no reliable source of running water and the short supply of hand sanitizer, it is especially difficult for housing insecure people to keep their hands clean,” Beckett said. “With the library and churches all closed, they are hard-pressed to find anywhere to wash their hands.”

Business senior Nolan Smith, president of Michigan Movement, an organization that strives to help those who are experiencing poverty or housing insecurity in the Ann Arbor community, explained the need to prioritize sanitation.

“In general, people who are homeless have poor access to cleaning facilities,” Smith said. “Whereas everyone that is at home during this quarantine can easily wash their hands, hang out and have all the resources you need, if you don’t have a home, it’s difficult to maintain the personal hygiene necessary to effectively fight off the virus, because there’s not really a good way to fight off coronavirus besides that.” 

Smith encouraged Ann Arbor residents to volunteer with SAWC if they are healthy, able and willing. He also mentioned the ways Michigan Movement is continuing to provide aid at this time. 

“Right now, we’re focusing on food,” Smith said. “We have some resources that we can use so we are just finding ways to make donations to local organizations that are on the sidelines and in direct contact with people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Paspal-Jasinski emphasized this need for help from the community. With SAWC working to provide shelter for people in vulnerable situations, they are running out of funds and resources.  

“We’re about making resources available to our clients,” Paspal-Jasinski said. “Financially, we don’t really have the funding … now we’re faced with all those increased costs for the supplies and equipment we need.”

Paspal-Jasinski praised her staff and the people working on the front lines to combat the coronavirus. 

“We are, in many ways, acting like a medical facility without the medical training,” Paspal-Jasinski said. “I love all the support I’m seeing in the community for all the health care workers, and I feel like we’re a sublet of that field. We’re a mini health center. We’ve been working really hard to make sure that our staff feel supported and recognized and know how much their risk is appreciated. But if not them, then who?” 

Daily Staff Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at goodingl@umich.edu