Serving the homeless during a pandemic is a challenge. One doctor likened homeless shelters to cruise ships — tight quarters where the coronavirus can spread.
A 100-bed isolated shelter for COVID-19 patients who are homeless is now open in Chicago.
"We must prioritize serving the homeless population," said Neli Vazquez Rowland, president of A Safe Haven, which has expanded its West Side facility by opening a COVID-19 wing. Rush University Medical Center and Heartland Alliance will provide medical and behavioral care.
A Safe Haven is contracted with the city to provide services to the homeless. The group has been helping homeless people for 25 years. But serving the homeless population has been a challenge during the pandemic. They can't stay home during a stay-in-shelter order, and the possibility of spreading coronavirus in a confined homeless facility worries medical and social service providers.
"I strongly believe we have a very small window of time in which we can prevent the widespread transmission of COVID-19 among people who are living on the streets and in shelters. Once the disease begins to spread in these groups, it will likely accelerate really fast and be uncontainable, creating a crisis not just for the homeless but the entire community," Vazquez Rowland said.
The city has implemented various measures to help people experiencing homelessness — from YMCA and Salvation Army partnerships to offering hotel rooms. But doctors and social service providers on the West Side realized something more was needed as the pandemic ramped up. They formed an ad hoc committee that has two conference calls a day, seven days a week, to discuss what is happening in emergency rooms and shelters.
When someone homeless comes to the emergency room with flu-like systems, that person can be tested, but it takes time for results to come back, said Steve Rothschild, chair of family medicine at Rush.
"We can't tell them to go home and shelter-in-place because home may have 100 or 200 people in the same room," Rothschild said. "We've been struggling for places that are safe."
He said homeless shelters risk becoming like cruise ships — tight quarters where the coronavirus can spread.
Meanwhile, some advocates are concerned that the COVID-19 wing is doing background checks on potential patients.
"We found out late last week folks from hospitals are having a hard time getting people into isolated housing," said Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "This is for people who are sick and trying to recover from an illness and it's completely unnecessary. If the city is opening this up as the place for people, they should be given whatever resources are needed to serve everybody with no exclusions."
A Safe Haven said mothers and children are in the COVID-19 wing. People are screened for sex offenses, arson and violence.
Rowland said she has not heard anyone from her staff deny anyone and people with violent backgrounds will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Referrals will be considered, if a person has a background issue come up, she said.
Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.