US warning for UK over need for coronavirus homeless strategy

Concerns of US campaigners echo those raised by operator of England’s largest network of winter night shelters.

Homeless person sleeping on a bench

In a warning for the UK, campaigners in the US say the lack of a coordinated coronavirus strategy for homeless communities could be catastrophic on the streets without self-isolation and containment options.

As reported by 24housing, Glass Door, the operator of England’s largest network of winter night shelters, has urged government to get ahead of options for rough sleepers turned away from stays over Coronavirus fears.

In California, which has some of the highest numbers of reported Covid-19 infections in the US, homeless charities and campaigners are reported by The Guardian as saying they lack the resources and government support to effectively stop the virus’ spread in encampments and largely unregulated shelters – with a shortage of tests and beds risking “devastating” consequences.

California is home to the largest homeless population in the US, with some regions – including Los Angeles and the Bay Area – calling their housing crisis a public health emergency.

As yet, there have been no confirmed or reported Covid-19 cases among California’s homeless populations, which campaigners say is to be expected given the sparsity of testing.

And health authorities have told campaigners that testing kits would first go to hospitals, care homes, and other organisations once they are available.

“You can tell people to stay home, but the shelters are people’s homes and it’s a dangerous place to be,” said Eve Garrow, the homelessness policy analyst with the ACLU of Southern California.

“We have many older adults with compromised immune systems living in the shelters, sharing living spaces, restrooms, showers and eating areas – it’s almost impossible to think this wouldn’t create a reservoir for the transmission of highly infectious viruses.”

In LA county alone, around 44,000 are estimated as living in cars, tents, and makeshift accommodation – with the death rate averaging around three a day.

This week, San Francisco announced a $5m emergency fund to protect the homeless from coronavirus, which will go toward expanded cleaning in shelters and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, extended shelter hours and meal options, and an enhanced food-delivery program for elderly SRO residents who are staying inside to protect themselves.

But Jennifer Friedenbach, the director for the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, said people needed immediate safe housing – not emergency shelters with high exposure risk.

“Thousands of people living outdoors don’t have access to water – decades of immoral inaction have set us up for this complete catastrophe,” she said.

An immediate option, said Friedenbach, was an end to sweeps of homeless encampments so rough sleepers don’t lose their medications or contact with outreach workers.

The California Department of Public Health says those experiencing homelessness are “not likely to have any particular risk for [coronavirus] related to international travel or exposure to recent travellers”.

In the UK, Glass Door said at risk rough sleepers needed “alternative safe space” if turned away from shelters over coronavirus concerns

And Glass Door has said it won’t admit rough sleepers regarded as “at risk”.

“I think all of us in the homeless sector are keen to share ideas and come up with a support solution.

“[We are] in regular communication with other charities, and I’ve been heartened by the willingness to work together to come up with better guidance,” said Glass Door Chief Operating Officer Lucy Abraham.

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